Howard County Economic Development Director Richard W. Story yesterday pledged to make the county's new economic development authority more competitive than any rival office in the Washington-Baltimore region.
"We don't have to be best in the universe, we just have to compete close in," Mr. Story told a crowd of about 86 people at a Howard County Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Columbia.
To illustrate his point, Mr. Story told a joke about two weaponless hunters trapped by a hungry lion. As one began putting on track shoes, the other said, "You don't think you can outrun that lion, do you?"
"I only have to outrun you," the first hunter said.
Mr. Story defined economic development as the creation of wealth for the betterment of the community. "You can make it happen," Mr. Story told chamber members. "We'll be better" than anyone in the area in attracting and keeping businesses, but not without help, he said.
"We're going to need to forge partnerships -- it's absolutely critical to our success," he said. It is particularly important to form a five-way partnership among government, business, labor, education and the news media, he said. "We need to come together better than today."
Quoting former County Executive J. Hugh Nichols, Mr. Story described government's role as one of providing the climate for business success -- "to provide the stove on which you can do the cooking."
The authority's "distant goal line" is to have businesses account for 30 percent of the county's property tax base, Mr. Story said, "but we're going to need first downs along the way."
First the county must stop the recent decline, he said. He told chamber members the business portion of the base dropped from 21.7 percent to 21.4 percent over the past year, largely because of a decline in the assessed value of commercial properties. The interim goal is for businesses to make up 25 percent of the base -- a goal he said he hopes the county will achieve within five years.
"What a strength 1,000 businesses [in the local Chamber of Commerce] brings to the table," Mr. Story said. "We have to call on labor groups to help us . . . and education is truly important to provide a work force for the future."
Mr. Story said "the adversarial relationship between business and the media and government and the media" needs to be diminished. "They don't need to be automatically negative when they write things," he said. He urged reporters to write that Howard County offers a "fast track" and provides a "quick fix" for business people mired in bureaucracy elsewhere. "Ours is a simple, uncomplicated process," he said.
The economic development plan, which the authority forwarded to County Executive Charles I. Ecker on Tuesday, differs little from that presented a year ago, he said. The new version refers to an economic development authority rather than a government department, and places more emphasis on small businesses, minority businesses and agriculturally oriented businesses.
The primary goal remains "fostering a strong economic environment in Howard County which supports business and nurtures growth while promoting stability in the marketplace." Mr. Ecker is "unabashedly and undeniably for economic development," Mr. Story told chamber members.
Although the county has planned to convert the economic development department to a quasi-public development authority for more than a year, the transformation did not begin in earnest until Tuesday when the nine-member board of directors approved its bylaws, confirmed Mr. Story as executive director and elected officers.
The board elected Richard Pettingill chairman, Donora L. Dingman vice chairwoman and Robert Cardoni secretary-treasurer. Marlene Weinberg and Charles E. Weller were elected to the board's five-member executive committee.
The authority, which is to become an independent agency in January, is now about four-fifths removed from county government, Mr. Story said. The final steps are to acquire an office, hire a staff and create an independent system of accounting.
When the operation was a government agency, the county paid costs such as postage, audits and employee benefits. Now the authority must assume such expenses. The authority will be supported by government grants and private contributions.