Harford's 'fast track' lures companies


Business is coming to Harford County a little more quickly than usual these days.

The county has long provided a strategic location between Baltimore and Philadelphia, access to railroads and Interstate 95, and some of the most affordable housing and land prices in the area. But county officials credit a new emphasis on an old program with attracting major businesses in the past few years.

The program, called "fast track," allows the county executive to grant special status to certain industrial projects that enables them to get grading permits in as little as two days and building permits within two weeks, ultimately saving the company money. Without the fast-track program, such approvals take several months.

"It's one of Harford County's strategic competitive advantages," said James Berger, plant manager for Clorox Co.

Clorox is one of the major companies that have built new plants in the county in the past three years on the fast-track program. Other companies that have built or expanded in the county with the program are: Pier 1 Imports, Merry-Go-Round Enterprises, The Gap Inc., General Electric Corp., MCI Communications Corp. and Frito-Lay Inc.

Harford County now appears to be on the verge of capturing another trophy. Coca-Cola USA said last week that it has an option on land in Harford to build a $60 million syrup-manufacturing plant and will be deciding on the site within the next several months.

Mr. Berger of Clorox said his company considered more than 100 sites, including ones in Baltimore and Cecil counties, before deciding to build in Harford. The company was able to start construction of its manufacturing and distribution plant within three months from the time it made its first presentation to the county. Mr. Berger said that in the other localities Clorox considered it would have taken at least six months to win permit approvals.

The plant is scheduled to open in the fall and will have about 100 employees.

"Some people claim to have a fast track, but Harford County is the first place I've been involved with that had excellent cooperation between the town [Aberdeen], county and state," said Brad Bradbury, a Frito-Lay official who scouted 20 sites for a new manufacturing and distribution plant before picking Harford County. "If they didn't have fast track, we wouldn't be there."

Harford officials say they created the fast-track program nine years ago to boost the tax base and increase jobs in the county. Use of the program has increased in recent years because the county's economic-development office has been more aggressive in pursuing companies and offering the fast-track program as an incentive.

About half of Harford's workers still commute to jobs outside the county, but Economic Development Director James Fielder said the county has placed a new emphasis on fast-tracking companies that will create jobs.

Mr. Fielder recommends which corporations should be granted the special status, and County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann makes the final decision based on the tax revenues and jobs the development is expected to generate.

Officials are reluctant to disclose details of program, saying they jTC want to maintain a competitive edge over their rivals. But in the years the program has been operating, some of the secrets have been revealed.

Early into the process, representatives from the prospective company attend a meeting with the county, town and state officials who must approve the development plans. The project is reviewed and potential problems identified. The government officials tell the company how to get permit approval.

In some cases, the county allows developers to begin grading and clearing the site even before permits are approved. The work is done at the company's own risk. If violations are discovered, the company must make corrections or face penalties.

Harford's other weapon is Stephen J. Kimlicko, who manages the fast-track program. Mr. Kimlicko heads the Department of Inspections, Licenses and Permits and, with the help of a computer, tracks the progress of applications through the various agencies.

Because the program is limited to a few special projects, Mr. Kimlicko is able to pay close attention to the status of the permit applications. If it appears that either the government or the developer is behind schedule, he immediately finds out why and determines how the problem can be corrected.

"It's a lot of common sense," Mr. Kimlicko said. "I think anybody can do it."

Some officials in nearby counties shake their heads in amazement at Harford's success. "I really don't know how they manage to do it," said Lynn Palmer, business development representative in Anne Arundel County. "My hat's off to them."

The approval process in Anne Arundel usually takes two to three months, she said, and she sees no way the county can do it any more quickly.

Officials in Baltimore and in Howard County say Harford is not doing anything they are not doing. They say they, too, occasionally give special consideration to certain projects and meet corporations' deadlines.

Baltimore County said it is ready to announce its own version of fast track.

Harford is betting that by the time the other jurisdictions catch on, it already will have a reputation as a business-friendly community.

"We say Harford County is open for business," Mr. Fielder said.

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