Maryland has filed criminal hazardous waste and pollution charges against Fairchild Industries Inc., but ironically it is the company that has the state between a rock and a hard place.
That's not to suggest that Fairchild will prevail in Washington County's circuit court, where it is being tried on 24 counts of pollution stemming from operations at its Hagerstown plant.
But the adversarial relationship that has developed as a result of the state bringing criminal charges against Fairchild and the company's plans to relocate its corporate headquarters to Dulles International Airport spell trouble for Maryland. And it couldn't have come at a worse time for the state.
It's no secret that Maryland officials are greatly concerned about a negative image that some companies have of the state. With Fairchild increasingly critical of the business climate in Maryland and negotiating a deal with Dulles officials, Maryland's business attraction program has suffered its second damaging blow in less than two months.
In March, the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Companies spurned Maryland's bid for a new 1,200-employe regional service company and chose instead to locate it in Arlington. C&P Chairman Robert E. Allen justified the decision by declaring that Maryland has a less favorable regulatory climate than Virginia. Maryland's General Assembly seems to have an "adversarial position" toward business, Allen added.
With Fairchild making similar accusations, Maryland's efforts to attract industry, especially other high-technology firms, may become increasingly difficult. It certainly doesn't help to have major corporations, particularly Fortune 500 companies, announcing to the world that business can't get a fair shake in your state.
And that is precisely what Fairchild Chairman Edward G. Uhl has implied in letters to executives of other Maryland companies.
"I believe there is a pattern of adversarial relations emerging between the state and business that will be to the ultimate detriment of all concerned," Uhl wrote.
In a position statement emphasizing Fairchild's commitment to environmental protection, Uhl was especially critical of Maryland Attorney General Stephen Sachs for his "adversarial approach" in filing criminal charges against the company.
Fairchild's concern "is over the tactics of enforcement suddenly being used by the attorney general and state health authorities," Uhl noted.
That concern extends beyond Fairchild's treatment "as an adversary to be hauled into court," Uhl continued. "Should this policy of state become widespread, then the economy could suffer, the resolution of environmenmtal problems delayed or hampered and the people of Maryland ultimately hurt rather than protected."
Fairchild denies that its legal problems with Maryland influenced its decision to look for a site at Dulles, just as C&P denied that its decision was connected with Maryland's refusal to grant a controversial rate request.
A spokesman offered assurances yesterday that Fairchild's interest in Dulles began "long before the issue of adversarial relationship with Maryland became public."
It has been suggested that Fairchild wants to put a facility at Dulles to market a new airplane that is being built in a joint venture with Saab-Scania of Sweden. Although confirming that it is negotiating a deal at Dulles, Fairchild refuses to say how much of its Hagerstown headquarters will be relocated.
Moving to Dulles may indeed be a sound business decision. But left unanswered is why Fairchild would choose Dulles and not Baltimore Washington International Airport for an expansion that would support its marketing plans. "I can't answer that," a spokesman replied when asked.
To be sure, Fairchild is a valuable asset to Maryland's economy, as the company implies in its position statement. It is one of the state's largest employers, paying nearly $100 million in wages to more than 13,000 employes at facilities in Germantown, Hagerstown and Rockville. And while there is concern among Maryland officials that the company plans to move its corporate headquarters to Virginia, it is adding a sixth building at Germantown for its expanding high-tech division.
Obviously Fairchild's guilt or innocence will be decided by the court. In the meantime, Maryland can't afford to wear blinders if it has reason to believe that a valued corporate resident has violated state and federal laws. Nor can it afford to stand by and watch business leave or bypass the state because of a growing antibusiness image.