Pursuit of Saks is long on time and money


Wooing businesses to Harford County such as the recently announced Saks Fifth Avenue distribution center is a painstaking process that can take months, if not years, and a lot of cash.

Negotiations with Saks, which is close to completing a deal to build a 470,000-square-foot warehouse and distribution center on U.S. 40 in Aberdeen, have been going on for 18 months, Harford officials said.

"We started burning down the phone lines trying to make a deal work once we heard Saks was shopping for land," said County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann.

She said she and Gov. Parris N. Glendening called Saks officials repeatedly to find out what it would take to persuade the New York-based department store chain to select the 40-acre site.

Mrs. Rehrmann said Harford was competing against sites in New Jersey.

She attributes Harford's victory to a substantial financial package, including $3 million in loans and grants from a state fund that provides incentives for new businesses, $625,000 in tax credits from the county and $1.5 million in tax credits from the town of Aberdeen.

The county also could provide Saks with the location it wanted, a well-educated work force with relatively low-cost labor, inexpensive housing and good recreational opportunities, Mrs. Rehrmann said.

Those factors have attracted a slew of nationally known companies to the county in recent years, including Frito-Lay, Pier 1 Imports, McCormick & Co., Clorox, Procter & Gamble and Sunbeam Plastics.

Making companies aware of Harford and its advantages includes advertising in nationally known trade publications distributed to commercial brokerage companies. The county is spending about this year on such ads.

Saks, like the other companies, contacted the county through a broker and was given a list of properties that would meet its needs, Mrs. Rehrmann said.

The ritzy New York-based department store chain wanted to build a warehouse and distribution center with easy access to southeastern states, where it is expanding, said a Saks spokeswoman, who asked not to be identified.

For example, the 70-year-old company plans to open stores next year in Charleston, S.C., and Sarasota, Fla., the spokeswoman said.

The proposed Saks site on U.S. 40, which, if negotiations are successful, could be completed next year, would employ 450 people by 1997 -- many of them part-time workers. The center would include 40,000 square feet of office space for the company's telemarketing and catalog operations, county officials said. About 40 employees would work full time in that division.

Such job prospects buoy the spirits of Aberdeen Mayor Chuck Boutin.

Mr. Boutin said he knew the land on U.S. 40, next to the Frito-Lay manufacturing plant, fit Saks' needs perfectly and at the same time offered its employees the quaintness of a small town.

"I have told businessmen over and over that if they live in Aberdeen they can be out at 6 in the morning duck hunting on the Susquehanna flats and then be back at their offices at 9 a.m. I've done it," he said.

Mr. Boutin said he called Saks and told company officials that Aberdeen has a large, blue-collar work force that would welcome the jobs, many of them paying about $8 an hour and averaging 20 hours a week.

"We have high-tech jobs here, but not everyone is a Ph.D. We also have a large population that needs those kind of jobs," the mayor said.

Paul Gilbert, Harford's director of economic development, said every time a well-known company such as Saks chooses Harford, other companies searching for a new location become interested.

Harford, contrary to some rumors, has plenty of commercially zoned land selling for $80,000 to $90,000 an acre, he said. By comparison, an acre in Baltimore County costs around $120,000, he said.

Mr. Gilbert said the county has about 1,500 acres of land zoned general industrial, which means it can be used for manufacturing plants like Frito-Lay's, near water and sewer lines. "A building could be constructed within a year to 15 months," he said.

An additional 1,200 to 1,300 acres are zoned for light industrial use, Mr. Gilbert said.

Harford officials are considering creating an industrial park in Perryman that would add 1,300 to 1,500 acres to the county's inventory. Clorox opened a 400,000-square-foot manufacturing and distribution center in Perryman in 1993.

And, Mr. Gilbert said, Harford has room for corporations needing buildings with 750,000 to 1 million square feet.

Merry-Go-Round Enterprises, for example, has its headquarters and distribution center in a 1 million-square-foot building in Fashion Park in Joppa. It's the biggest in Harford.

Next door, Procter & Gamble operates a 250,000-square-foot warehouse-distribution center. Pier 1 Imports, on U.S. 40 across from the proposed Saks site, has a 650,000-square-foot warehouse.

McCormick is building a 370,000-square-foot facility at Riverside Business Park on U.S. 40 to sort and clean spices before shipping them to Hunt Valley for bottling. Sunbeam is building an 89,000-square-foot plant in Riverside, where it will manufacture bottle caps.

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