A sobering look at economic development

Yesterday that thorn buried deep in Martin O’Malley’s side known as Change Maryland put out an eight-page report lambasting the state’s Department of Business and Economic Development as a “politically-driven marketing agency (and) not a job-creating organization.” While the report was critical, it also outlined a number of ideas for improving the agency and returning its focus to economic development, not just to be another propaganda tool for Martin O’Malley.

Step one is getting the DBED to put out useful information and guidance for local economic development units. Change Maryland head Larry Hogan remarked that:

There is no reason that Democrats, Republicans and Independents can’t work together on the shared goals of increasing employment.  First we need to get on the same page and provide basic economic information in one place so we can see where we are going and how to get there.

While the Change Maryland study makes many key points, one mistake that they make – and perhaps it’s something which can be rectified in subsequent reports – is falling into the trap of assuming the DBED can be a one-size-fits-all repository for economic development. Whether formally or informally, local governments also have ideas about how they can best take advantage of their assets – thus, this particular facet of government is where the One Maryland O’Malley idea truly falls on its face. Industry drivers like natural scenic features and convenient modes of transport aren’t equally distributed across the state – the Port of Baltimore ain’t nothing to look at and Ocean City isn’t the easiest place to ship items from. Reverse these factors, though, and you find where the state can take advantage of particular job creators by listening to local input.

One point which may not be amplified enough in this study is buried on page 5:

The Maryland Made Easy website lists the results of regulatory reform under a “latest progress,” section which contains this entry from March 26: “Making It Easier to do Business in Maryland. Governor O’Malley submits more thatn (sic) 130 regulations to be revised, streamlined or repealed.” Unknown are which regulations were submitted, to whom they were submitted or their status.

Unfortunately, the report is marred by my not being able to find this specific link. However, I found this post with over 350 suggestions – some way too broad and certain to be ignored on a philosophical basis, but others rather helpful. Yet there is no follow-up to the governor’s Executive Order to streamline regulations in either case.

On the other hand, in studying what laws were passed by the General Assembly over the last several years I can ascertain that the 350 suggestions and 130 regulations were more than trumped by all the restrictions, taxes, fees, and mandates on businesses and local governments which were passed and signed into law. Any agency created to promote a state to employers would be playing at a huge disadvantage given the attitude of the current government of Maryland. As I’ve said on many occasions, the only reason we’re not an economic basket case like Nevada, California, or Rhode Island (all of which “boast” topline unemployment rates over 10 percent) is our proximity to the national seat of government.

Another great point made in the Change Maryland report is that, once again, Virginia skunked us in attracting new commercial occupancy:

The objective of the Office of Business Development is to develop and maintain a pipeline of businesses undertaking facility location decisions, i.e. where to locate warehouses, distribution hubs, corporate headquarters or office space.

In 2013 it is estimated that this office will be involved in 35 such location decisions. Of that, it is unknown how many of these facilities DBED ultimately plans to land in Maryland. On the other hand, Virginia’s comparable new and expanded facility announcements in 2011 was 273 according to Site Selection Magazine.

Alas, this is somewhat of an apples-to-oranges comparison but if Virginia had that many, Maryland (as a state somewhat smaller) still should have cracked triple figures. Surely it didn’t.

There’s little doubt that Maryland could bring a lot more to the table if it had leadership which was willing to work with the business community instead of using it as a piggy bank every chance it gets. While the report talked about economic development, it doesn’t speak to the economic atrophy caused by increased taxation – case in point: how many jobs have been lost thanks to Maryland increasing its alcohol tax to 9 percent and the resulting flat sales, compared to increases in other neighboring states? It may only be a few dozen jobs statewide, but those remain opportunities removed for someone trying to feed a family. “We’re not hiring” is a sad refrain throughout the state.

Economic development isn’t simple, but it’s not rocket science either. In particular, counties know what assets they have and what incentives they can afford to use in attracting and retaining jobs. But until the state gets its act together, we’ll continue to spin our wheels and while we may have success despite ourselves, the knowledge that we can do so much more will keep those who love our state and know how to fix the problem up at night.