Economic Development often is at a distinct disadvantage in the fierce competition that accompanies local budget-making. Because its benefits are long-term, economic development tends to pale in importance beside such critical services as police protection and fire and rescue. One answer to this dilemma, privatization, becomes even more compelling in tough times.
A case in point is Howard County, which is seriously considering spinning off its economic development office into a private, non-profit agency. "Economic development is absolutely necessary for the long-term health of the county, but people have a hard time looking ahead when there are so many other immediate concerns," says county economic development director Dyan L. Brasington.
Under the scheme now under study, the private sector and Howard County government would form a private corporation to focus on recruiting new businesses to Howard and helping companies already there.
This idea would make sense in many jurisdictions, but it is particularly well-suited for Howard. Despite its growth, the county has been slow to put in place an economic development program. In the early years, growth was driven by the Rouse Co.'s building schemes and its prime location between Baltimore and Washington. During the administration of Elizabeth Bobo, however, the county's business development became intertwined with a more controversial issue -- how to handle the county's population boom. Economic development suffered from this linkage.
Howard now finds itself sorely in need of an economic strategy. Overbuilding during the '80s has created a glut of office space that exceeds 25 percent. The recession has thinned the ranks of its existing businesses and prevented many others from expanding or moving into the county.
The county's existing economic development effort consists of a six-member staff with a budget of $335,000. Privatization would allow the county to leverage those funds with matching dollars from the business community. Perhaps even more important, this step would take economic development out of the political arena where it has fared so badly. It will be months before the Ecker administration completes it's review on privatization. But it already is clear that this is definitely an idea worthy of serious consideration.