Battling with the big boys


When Baltimore County officials discuss prospects for new business, they generally think of the competition as Baltimore City -- and Harford County. Harford County? Among the big boys?

In fact, Harford, heretofore known to the rest of the region as home of Aberdeen Proving Ground and the C-Mart outlet, is making some of the region's most impressive economic news these days.

MCI Communications Corp. recently announced a $150 million expansion of its facility in Perryman. Clorox bleach and Frito-Lay snacks are also building new manufacturing plants in the Aberdeen area, to employ a total of 400 to 600 people. Before FTC that, Pier One Imports, Merry-Go-Round Enterprises Inc., The Gap Inc. and General Electric Co. landed in Harford.

The state's director of economic and employment development unabashedly proclaims that "Harford County is hot." Last fall, American Demographics magazine ranked Harford 41st among the 50 hottest counties in the country (only Howard topped it in the metropolitan area.) Of the 10 largest construction projects begun in the area last year, Harford had three, according to the Baltimore Business Journal.

Harford has hooked some of the larger fish with its "fast track" program, whose workings it guards with a zeal that might make the CIA blush. The head of the county's tiny economic development shop will explain only that County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann decides which few projects get fast-track handling based on factors as diverse as jobs, impact on schools and day care. Director James D. Fielder politely refrains from revealing more, explaining that industries wouldn't divulge trade secrets.

It's hard to argue with success. Since beginning "fast track" eight years ago, Harford can approve a permit in as little as three weeks; Baltimore County says when it finally unveils its accelerated permit program this spring, it may be able to cut red-tape decision-making -- to six months.

Harford's attractions include inexpensive land, excellent transportation links and one of the state's most efficient governments. Harford ranks 18th of 24 jurisdictions in employees-per-resident; Baltimore City and Baltimore County rank 1st and 3rd, respectively. Mr. Fielder likes to believe intangibles such as a "can-do" attitude and momentum play large roles in the county's recent win streak.

Unfortunately, some of Harford County's gains haven't netted many jobs. More than half of the county's residents commute elsewhere. And the county's tax base tips toward residential property over commercial/industrial by an unhealthy 85-15 ratio, the state's worst such imbalance.

That situation will change if Ms. Rehrmann's team continues to prove itself as a lean, mean fighting machine -- a middleweight landing punches in the heavyweight class.

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