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Workers' dedication led Saks to choose Aberdeen Retailer cites reasons for selecting Harford over numerous rivals


When Harford County convinced Saks Fifth Avenue to build its new $36 million warehouse distribution center in Aberdeen, the county beat out nearly a dozen other jurisdictions in four states.

"Maryland, Harford County and particularly Aberdeen prevailed through very stiff competition," said Robert McLean III, executive director of Cushman & Wakefield, the real estate firm that handles all of Saks' land acquisitions.

Mr. McLean, who works in his company's Northern Virginia office, appeared before the Harford County Council Tuesday night as the panel considered approving two incentives that will benefit his client.

But Mr. McLean didn't come to Harford to push for passage of the incentives -- one, a $3 million loan-grant consisting of a $2.5 million loan and $500,000 grant; the other, $625,000 in tax credits. If Saks has 375 employees within two years of opening, $2 million of the loan also would become a grant.

The County Council, with seven Republicans, has strongly supported tax credits and incentives for businesses lured to Harford, and it was clear it would support the incentives for Saks. The panel later approved both measures by unanimous votes.

But first, Mr. McLean said,he wanted to give council members a report card on how Harford County beat jurisdictions in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and other counties in Maryland, including Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Howard.

Knowing why Harford won might "put some arrows in your quiver" for future economic development, he said.

Saks plans to build a 470,000-square-foot warehouse distribution center that could eventually employ 450 employees. If all goes well, it will open in early 1997.

As Saks considered where to build its warehouse, it narrowed the choices to the greater Baltimore area and central New Jersey.

Eventually, Harford prevailed.

One big reason was the work force, he said. When executives at companies that moved to Harford were interviewed, including those with Frito Lay, they spoke highly of the dedication and skill of Harford County's workers, said Mr. McLean.

"I think that's a tremendous strength that your county has," he said. "That was, I think, a very decisive factor. Obviously, when you have a more productive work force, it makes up for a lot of other expenses that you incur. A productive worker is the most important thing of all.

"So I think your county received an A on that score," he said.

Another factor in the county's favor was what Mr. McLean called a "pro-business attitude."

"I think there are a lot of economic development programs, and we work in all 50 states," he said. "But we were very impressed with the pro-business attitude here."

The tax credits and $3 million loan-grant package were important, as was the "fast track" process for obtaining permits, which will allow Saks to open its facility by early 1997.

"We're on a very, very tight time frame," he said. The distribution center has to be fully operational by May 1997 for the company to be ready for the 1997 Christmas-holiday season.

Cheaper land and access to major roads, railroads and airports were other important reasons, he said.

"You should remember that goods that Saks buys in Europe and Japan will all come into this state-of-the-art facility, and within hours, they will go out to their 60 stores.

"Because hours are important in the retail business. The person who gets their product to the shelf or to the store first is the one who wins market share.

"And lastly," he said. "A small matter, but several of the executives have noticed it. It's very nice to take the Amtrak [train] down from New York to Aberdeen.

"It's more pleasant than taking the shuttle, and the access to Amtrak -- small details. My wife often tells me details is where it is. But that was another feature that was important to us," he said.

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