By Ovetta Wiggins
Saturday, March 19, 2011; 3:38 PM
During the bid ding war last year for Northrop Grumman's new corporate headquarters, Maryland offered grants and cash incentives to the defense contracting giant. Prince George's County Economic Development Corp. made promises to do the same.
In the end, Virginia, with its nearly $14 million incentive package, won, bringing 300 to 400 high-paying jobs to an office park near Falls Church.
Now Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) and his newly assembled economic development organization have proposed a $50 million fund designed to create jobs and increase the county's commercial tax base. It is the kind of program that might have helped steer Northrop Grumman to National Harbor, a 300-acre mixed-use development.
"This would be a game-changer for this county to help it compete nationally for significant economic development," said David Iannucci, the new assistant deputy chief administrative officer for Economic Development and Public Infrastructure, who ran a similar agency in Baltimore County. Iannucci also served as Maryland's economic development secretary when Parris N. Glendening (D) was governor.
"I can't say it's a silver bullet," Iannucci said about the fund. "But having something on the table rather than putting a promise on the table can be the difference."
Baker announced the proposed Economic Development Incentive Fund this week as he unveiled his $2.63 billion spending plan. The dedicated fund would come from the county's $116 million surplus.
Under the plan, the county would act as a banker, providing loans to businesses. It could also dispense guarantees, conditional loans and grants. Funds would be offered, but not limited, to: mixed-use development projects, especially transit-oriented development; business start-up capital and land acquisition; building construction; and equipment acquisition. The loans would have to be paid back in less than 10 years and the county's chief administrative officer or his designee would determine rates and terms.
Baker initially implied that he would tap into the entire $50 million this year. But the county budget director, Tom Himler, said Baker will ask the County Council to establish the fund and then draw down $7 million from it this year.
Additional funds could be made available with legislative approval during the fiscal year, but the investment is expected to be rolled out over several years, Himler said.
"It's unheard of that a county commits $50 million into a [economic development] fund," he said. "The intent is to say we are serious about economic development."
By setting aside $7 million, Prince George's would outshine neighboring jurisdictions. Montgomery County has less than $1 million dedicated to its economic development fund in its budget.
The Office of Management and Budget would assess applications before passing them on to an independent panel made up of five to seven financial experts selected by the county's chief administrative officer, who would examine the company's financial history. The business would have to provide an estimate of how many jobs it would create and the county's Office of Finance would ensure that the company is audited, examining financial and performance reviews after receiving funds.
M.H. Jim Estepp, president of the Greater Prince George's County Business Roundtable, said small businesses, which have been frustrated by the county's lack of interest in boosting economic development, are pleased that Baker has made economic development a focus.
Prince George's school board member Donna Hathaway Beck said she thinks the fund is a good strategy and hopes it will eventually lead to more revenue to pay for essential services, including schools.
She said she wonders, however, how "you lure businesses into a school system where you have a school with a librarian who is only in on Mondays. That seems like a disconnect."
Brad Seamon, who was Baker's campaign treasurer and worked to design the fund, said the county plans to use the money to leverage additional funds from the Maryland Department of Economic Development.
"There are instances where we may put in $500,000 and get $5 million from the state," said Seamon, who is likely to become Baker's chief administrative officer.
The plan has received high marks from bond rating firms on Wall Street. Council members also seem to generally approve of the proposal.
"We haven't done enough in the past to grow our economic tax base," said council member Mel Franklin (D-Upper Marlboro). "We're so over-reliant on our residential tax base."
According to county officials, about 30 percent of the county's tax base comes from commercial taxes and more than 60 percent of the county's workforce commutes to jobs outside the county.
Franklin said he wants local residents to benefit from jobs that are created.
Council member Obie Patterson (D-Fort Washington) said he likes the concept, but he wants to make sure there are checks and balances in place.
"We just want to make sure we are not just giving blank checks," he said. "I know we're not going to see returns in 2012 or 2013. We have to look long range, and I think it will work to benefit the county."