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Economic development hitting snags Official marketing county despite woes with roads, sewers;'We're ... open for business'; EDC wants to increase commercial property


To Jack Lyburn, the deal's the thing.

Finding it, schmoozing about it, embracing it.

The problem for Mr. Lyburn, who was hired a year ago as Carroll's economic development director, is marketing a county that even its boosters acknowledge has serious shortcomings in transportation, location and other key factors in attracting new industry and jobs.

"We are becoming a real regional player, and everyone knows that we're now open for business," Mr. Lyburn said last week. "I'm a real results-oriented person, and if there's an obstacle in the way, we get around the obstacle to make the deal."

But to many inside and outside the county's business community, the obstacle to economic development over the past several years has been Carroll County itself.

The roads are overburdened and often crowded, water and sewer service doesn't reach a large chunk of the county's industrially zoned land, and the approach to economic development for years has been viewed as parochial and disorganized.

"We have not accomplished everything we have wanted to accomplish," said Paul Denton, president of Maryland Midland Railway, past president of the county's Economic Development Commission and president of the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce.

"But that's not Jack Lyburn. Not having an economic director for so long put us in a bad position. It sent the wrong kind of message."

The EDC and the county commissioners have long said that they want to increase the amount of industrial and commercial property on the tax rolls from the current 12 percent to 17 percent in the next five years.

"The economic development office has been reinvigorated," said Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown. "A balance of industrial, residential, commercial and social activities adds to a good community. We're trying to achieve that."

For the two years before Mr. Lyburn was hired, the county lacked a full-time economic development director. The county commissioners also were viewed by the state's business community as unwilling or unable to handle any serious courtship of industrial enterprises.

"The thing we suffer from, that all of Maryland suffers from, is the unfriendly attitude toward business that has been created by government in the past," said David H. Roush, general manager of the Lehigh Portland Cement Co. plant in Union Bridge and a member of the Economic Development Commission. "I'm hopeful that it's changing, but we're not going to get out of it in a year or two."

Whether Mr. Lyburn has changed that climate in the last year is uncertain.

Most of the deals he so relishes are "in the works," so they remain confidential. And, although the development office keeps track of companies that show interest in Carroll, that information also is kept under wraps.

"I think it definitely hurt not having a full-time economic director, because the perception out there was that Carroll wasn't taking economic development seriously," Mr. Lyburn said. "But I think we had a great year, a really good year."

The most concrete proof, he said, was that the county didn't lose any of its nearly 37,000 jobs in the last year.

Mr. Lyburn, 48, was hired last October, the third choice of a blue-ribbon search team, to jump start the county's economic development engine. Carroll's business and government leaders had long recognized that the county's industrial base was too small -- and possibly shrinking.

Mr. Lyburn, a commercial real estate broker with no government experience, took the $48,302-a-year job after the county commissioners voted 2-1 to hire him.

"I would have liked to come into a better situation," he said. "I came into a real political situation."

Elmer C. Lippy, who when he was a commissioner voted not to hire Mr. Lyburn, said he wasn't inclined to give the job to someone he felt wasn't as qualified as other candidates.

"I was upset over it," he said recently. "But I was pleasantly surprised ever since he came on board."

Mr. Lyburn has had several high-profile successes in the last year. Marada Industries Inc., an auto parts manufacturer in Westminster, is set to double the size of its plant and add 100 to 150 jobs.

Vartta Industries, a cabinetmaker from Linthicum, moved to New Windsor this year, bringing 50 jobs with it.

Perhaps more important, Jos. A. Banks Clothiers and its 425 workers remained at the company's Hampstead plant, and London Fog, which has 500 employees in the county, reconfirmed its commitment to its Eldersburg warehouse and headquarters.

Mr. Lyburn says at least one major deal -- involving perhaps 200 jobs -- is about to close and that others are in the works.

One deal that has not gone well is a relatively small one involving one of Westminster's most historic buildings.

The Glass House, a former distillery building in the heart of the downtown business district, has been vacant for years. This summer, Mr. Lyburn received two unsolicited bids for the building, one from a local restaurant owner and the other from a prominent developer of office space.

Both proposals were rejected, but Mr. Lyburn drew fire for his lack of communication with the bidders and from downtown business leaders who complained that they never knew the county was seeking a buyer.

The building, now being marketed by the county's Industrial Development Authority, is no longer in Mr. Lyburn's hands, and he says that's fine with him. "It's not an important part of my job. I really can't be worried about a little building falling down," he said.

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