The lobby of Harford County government office building is adorned with a large portrait of the home-grown Cal Ripkens, senior and junior, looking like royalty in their chalk-white Oriole double-knits. But the real pride in county chambers these days is illustrated by the lobby's other promotional display -- Harford's "fast track" program.
"Fast track," a loosely defined but apparently effective method of cutting red tape for developments deemed most desirable, is a major reason Harford has been landing some of the economic coups in the region lately.
Clorox bleach and Frito-Lay snacks are putting up manufacturing plants in the Aberdeen area that will employ a total of 400 people to start, possibly 1,000 later. MCI Communications Corp. recently announced an $150 million expansion of its facility in Perryman. Pier 1 imports, Merry-Go-Round Enterprises Inc., The Gap Inc. and General Electric Co. also built major projects in Harford. All of them got "fast track" handling, basically a commitment from County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann that her departments will give those projects priority to cut the permit review red tape from a year to maybe a month.
Clorox plant manager James Berger acknowledges that "fast track" permitting played a significant factor in his company's decision to choose Harford after it reviewed 100 sites, including ones in Baltimore and Cecil counties, in six states. But Mr. Berger also echoes some statements made separately by the county's economic development director, that business decisions often get made based on relationships and vibes -- and right now Harford is giving off good ones. Harford showed how much it wanted to do business, Mr. Berger said; some other entities were content to exchange documents in the mail.
Harford County is attractive to industry because of inexpensive land, its location between Philadelphia and Baltimore-Washington and its ready access to rail and interstate systems. Harford must add businesses to its tax base because its "bedroom community" status -- which mushroomed as the county turned into the region's hottest housing market in the past few years -- entails costly government expenses.
As this recession has reminded us, business climates can change quickly. Officials in Harford County seem to realize they must move quickly -- now that their economic development program is moving along a very fast track.