Cumberland Times-News

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August 31, 2013

Allegany considering its next move for economic progress

Officials disagree on hiring consultant

CUMBERLAND — While Allegany County has recently adopted a strategic economic development plan, some additional work could help bring the ideas in the document to fruition, said Allegany County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Stu Czapski.

“We’re doing good things, but need to take the next step,” Czapski said.

Both Garrett and Washington counties have very specific plans to work on tough issues like industry recruitment and their strategic plans are “project driven,” Czapski said.

Garrett County’s plan, for instance, has 15 pages of action items, while Washington County’s plan incudes a who, when and how breakdown of responsibilities for various parts of economic development projects.

The strategic plan, adopted on Aug. 1 by Allegany County commissioners, was completed in 2012 and is already a year old, Czapski said.

A strategic group, of which Czapski is a member, continues to meet, but is not tasked with developing an appendix or addition to the plan.

Czapski said that good things are happening, but the road map needs more details. He emphasized he was not criticizing individuals, but hoped to improve the likelihood of good results.

“I am honestly excited about how far we’ve come. ... We have more work to do,” Czapski said.

Many of the needed elements are in the existing plan, Czapski said, including the importance of the trails and the North-South Highway.

“The one thing I would like to see is a little more vision,” Czapski said.

It’s like having an idea to build a dream home and then needing to get down to the nitty-gritty to make that happen, Czapski said.

The existing plan contains “good general goals,” he said.

Washington County’s plan takes stock of the county’s strengths and weaknesses, and compares the county to selected near and far communities as places to do business.

Both Garrett and Washington counties developed their plans with hired consultants, Czapski said.

“The structure of the plans caught our attention at the chamber,” Czapski said.

The plans didn’t use a lot of terms like “explore” economic opportunities, but offered specific jobs for different individuals and groups to aid the county’s economic development.

Czapski said he’d like to see a little more aggressive approach, adding that the county generally reacts well to opportunities like Rocky Gap’s Casino Resort, but perhaps could do more to attract businesses that may not already be interested in the county.

The Washington County plan includes target industries appropriate for the county,  which are the focus of business recruitment efforts, Czapski said.

The idea of hiring a consultant at some point should not be ruled out, Czapski said.

Allegany County commissioner Michael McKay isn’t on board with the idea of hiring a consultant, an idea Czapski said the chamber’s economic development committee back-ed when the strategic plan was being developed.

“I am not sure that Garrett or Washington counties had a current economic development plan in place when they decided to hire an outside consultant. Spending $100,000 or more with an outside consultant to repeat an exercise that we just finished doesn’t seem prudent to me.

“Our county was very fortunate to have the talent and experience from a group of individuals that we could tap into without the need to outsource this project,” McKay said.

Sometimes, Czapski said, an outside pair of eyes can see things that local experts have missed in their analysis or are unwilling to consider for fear of offending a particular individual or interest group.

“We’re not a cute little town; we’re a small town that used to be a big town,” Czapski said.

There are great opportunities for reuse of older facilities and buildings, he said.

“We have infrastructure,” Czapski said.

Retail opportunities will come, but only once the population and income is here to support retail endeavors, he said.

There remain other serious concerns, despite the work that Allegany College of Maryland is doing, Czapski said.

Concerns about the local work force have become “evident,” he said.

The question is whether Allegany County has the work force businesses are looking for now.

“If I need a computer programmer,” Czapski said, as if he were opening a business, “I need him today.”

The work to plan the future course of economic development has already been done, McKay said.

“The county began work on an Economic Development Plan in 2010. By late 2012, our staff had completed a document that encompassed both strategic and land use elements.  As you are aware, last fall, the commissioners worked with the Allegany County Chamber of Commerce to form a nine-member committee to provide suggestions and additional input to what staff had completed,” McKay said.

Plans are for periodic meetings to be held to monitor the progress of the plan as staff at the county measure various economic variables (or metrics) at different times throughout any given year, McKay said.

The strategic work group will continue to move things forward, McKay said.

Czapski said that there’s a feeling the county doesn’t need another plan, but what is needed is a specific program aimed at recruitment of businesses to the area.

“This is a community issue. We’re not trying to tell the county what they should or should not be doing,” he said.

Czapski said what he’s urging is laying the specific building blocks for economic progress based on the existing strategic plan.

County economic development officials have said it’s important to have the public and business community buy into the plan or it will not succeed.

McKay said he appreciated the chamber’s input: “I really appreciate the involvement of chamber staff in helping us to move this project forward. As a past president of the chamber of commerce, I feel it is important that we forge partnerships like this to promote and advance our community, especially in the area of economic development.”

Contact Matthew Bieniek at mbieniek@times-news.com.

 

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