By Erica Mitrano
Thursday, October 21, 2010; SM19
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.
"If they take those functions and relocate them, what reuse plan do we want to provide for that property?" Lakner asked, noting that the federal and state governments would have dibs on the property if the base closed.
Eldridge, an executive at VSE Corp. in Indian Head, stressed that the discussion was hypothetical, and that no one on the board has any information to indicate that the base might close. VSE performs Energetics -- a field of engineering dealing with explosives -- civil engineering, construction and IT/communications work, including projects for the federal government.
Wall said he feared that the discussion "could create what I would say [is] hysteria."
But John Reardon, chief operating officer of Facchina Development, said, "The (base closure) process will put everyone in the county on alert. It's not a passive process."
The county could lose about 3,500 jobs if the base were closed, Reardon added.
Asked what in the county "keeps him up at night," real estate agent Harry Shasho said he frets about the volume of vacant commercial space. About 250,000 square feet is empty now, which could be rented out at an average of about $12 per square foot in a good economy, he said.
Charles needs local jobs, said board member Walter Carroll, who works for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 26, adding that he has no doubt the jobs will come.
"Charles County, to me, is the next hot lick," he said. "Silver Spring was the same way. Silver Spring is flourishing now because they thought about [economic development]. Charles County is next. No doubt about it."