Charles County needs an image makeover, advisory panel says

By Erica Mitrano
Maryland Independent
Thursday, October 21, 2010

Does Charles County have an image problem?

The perception of the region among residents and outsiders leaves much to be desired and might be holding back economic growth, according to members of a new economic advisory panel.

The county also is hobbled by a perceived absence of a strategy for attracting companies to the area, some members of the Charles County Economic Development Executive Board said at the board's meeting Oct. 6.

The Charles commissioners established the volunteer board, also known as the Economic Advisory Council, after the county's Department of Economic Development was dissolved in May. The board meets every two weeks.

Board Chairman Richard Eldridge asked members to present their thoughts on strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats facing the local economy.

Although the board members agreed that the county's proximity to Washington and high quality of life are economic assets, they also concluded that deficiencies, including highway and Internet infrastructure problems, can make it harder to use such assets to the county's advantage.

Board member Steve Wall, manager of the Southern Maryland Office of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, said he wouldn't say anything negative about the county in a public forum. Still, he asked, "What is it Charles County has that we can market? I don't think that's clearly identified, and I think that's a clear need."

John Bloom, head of the Indian Head Defense Alliance, a coalition of businesses that serves the Indian Head U.S. Navy base, said the region suffers from "East of [Interstate] 95 Syndrome."

"In economic development there's a perception that east of 95 was deadwood and a perception that west of 95 is a growth area," Bloom said, adding that people from outside the area have a negative perception of the county dating to the time when it was a local gambling mecca.

Chuck Beall Jr., director of the county's Department of Planning and Growth Management, said there's "not necessarily a specific sense of direction in economic development. . . . I think we need to have a focus, a specific focus, and not try to accomplish everything."

The county needs people dedicated to recruiting new firms to the area, said board member Gloria Lakner, an employee of the department of the Navy who also owns Gloriaus Creations, a silk-screening and embroidery company in La Plata. "We need a quality team of people to go out and proactively search for businesses," she said.

Lakner added that county officials should have a "reuse plan" for the Indian Head U.S. Navy base if the base is closed during the federal government's next Base Realignment and Closure process.

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