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It wasn't on the agenda, but the loss of Black & Decker's headquarters was drinks-and-hors d'oeuvres chatter at the Maryland Chamber of Commerce's policy conference in Cambridge on Thursday.

Don't call it happy hour. The Fortune 500 company is shifting power to Connecticut thanks to its purchase by Stanley Works, taking local jobs, purchasing, charity and expertise.

Black & Decker will keep its power tool division here, maintaining a "significant presence" in Maryland, in the soothing words of every acquirer who takes a little piece of the state's economic heart.

But the headquarters exit is reviving the talk Maryland likes to have with itself every time there is an economic loss. Can we prevent a repeat? How can we recover?

There was "lots of informal discussion about Black & Decker" and the "trend in the Baltimore region to lose these very large companies to mergers and acquisitions," said chamber President Kathleen T. Snyder.

Unfortunately, informal discussions are probably about as far as it will go. Despite the recession, Maryland seems so drugged by federal stimulus, defense and homeland security money that it sort of forgot there was a private sector.

"If you look at these federal facilities, they are huge economic engines," says Christian Johansson, Gov. Martin O'Malley's economic development secretary. "But we've never talked about them that way. We as a state need to be looking at them and saying, 'What can we do to support them?' "

There is something to what he says. And he's doing a good job aiming his department where it can generate the biggest dividends - federal spending, health care, universities and tourism. But there is more to Maryland's economy than Johansson's "feds, meds, eds and beds."

O'Malley's tax increase two years ago hurt the small businesses he says he cares about. One of the state's biggest corporate citizens, Baltimore-based Constellation Energy Group, just got hazed by O'Malley and the Public Service Commission for trying to stabilize and grow.

"It's unfortunate that Governor O'Malley has failed in his attempt to chase Constellation out of here," jokes Aris Melissaratos, a Democrat who was economic development secretary under Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. "He went after Constellation and got Black & Decker to leave."

O'Malley has revived the Maryland Economic Development Commission, as he pointed out to the chamber Thursday. The Greater Baltimore Committee is working on a new strategic plan.

"We need to find a stronger way to hang out a sign that says we're interested in bringing major businesses to our state," says Charles Monk, the managing partner at law firm Saul Ewing who is the GBC's chairman.

I wonder what it'll all come to. Split between (relative) liberals and the traditional anti-tax, anti-union crowd, Maryland's business leadership has trouble crafting a message. That we keep losing CEOs doesn't help.

Robert O.C. "Rocky" Worcester, president emeritus of the conservative Maryland Business for Responsive Government, sees Black & Decker's exit as "a conspicuous example" of the state repelling a huge company.

I don't think he's right. Black & Decker's stock has gotten beat up more than Stanley's - meaning Stanley is the natural dominant partner. Black & Decker spokesman Roger Young says Maryland's business environment was not a factor. ("They always say that" when they leave, says Worcester.)

But the fact that Black & Decker didn't bolt because of Maryland's business climate doesn't mean it doesn't matter. What do we do when the federal money dries up?

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