Montgomery launches nonprofit business development group
County wants to attract, retain more companies
Montgomery County created a new office this week to make the state's largest county more business-friendly, a move praised by economic development experts across the state.
The County Council created the quasi-public nonprofit Business Development Corp. to provide strategic planning and advice to the council and county executive, legislative and regulatory advocacy, and evaluation of the county's economic development department's performance.
"It'll be a big asset in terms of providing a group of mostly large companies to partner with economic development to attract and retain companies and to put policy ideas on the table," said Steven A. Silverman, the county's director of economic development.
There are 90 advisory boards in the county, but there were none for the business community, Silverman said.
There are 15 chambers of commerce in the county and sometimes different organizations advocate in conflicting directions, Silverman said.
The new corporation will be able to provide policy advice in the broadest possible view, Silverman said.
The Business Development Corp. will comprise 11 voting members, including a Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce representative, a small-business owner, a manager or owner of a medium-sized county business and up to eight senior managers of major companies in the county. Nonvoting ex-officio members will include the economic development director, the county schools superintendent, the Montgomery County College president, and either the planning board chairman or director.
The county expects to spend about $6,000 for board members to travel to other regions to study economic development efforts; up to $1,000 for printing costs for meeting materials; and about $55,000 for a part-time staffer from the economic development department to provide support. The funds will come from the economic development department's budget.
"This is a first step in creating a definitive platform for the business community," Silverman said.
Georgette "Gigi" Godwin, president and CEO of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, supported the creation of the new group, which was pushed by Council President Nancy M. Floreen (D-At large) of Garrett Park.
"We support council President Floreen's effort to move the county's economic development effort forward by having the Business Development Corporation develop both a strategic plan for economic growth and metrics for success such as net new job growth," Godwin said in an e-mail to The Gazette.
Councilman Michael J. Knapp (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown said there had been concerns that the county's economic development department was also responsible for work-force development and other activities besides just attracting new businesses.
The new organization is a way to supplement what Silverman's department does without having to divide the department into separate organizations, Knapp said.
The board also will be able to take a longer view on shaping business policies than an economic development director, who could be replaced by a new administration after every election cycle, said Dick Story, CEO of the quasi-public nonprofit Howard County Economic Development Authority.
In some ways the Montgomery County Business Development Corp. will be similar to Story's group in that it will be a quasi-public nonprofit organization. But as an authority, Howard County's organization is able to dispense economic development grants for Howard County, while the Montgomery organization cannot.
In essence, Howard County privatized economic development in 1993 by creating the Howard County Economic Development Authority, Story said.
"We see ourselves as a government contractor with one customer, Howard County," Story said.
Knapp said no one in Montgomery County has proposed following Howard County's model of privatizing economic development.
"Is Fairfax [Va.] the right model? Is it Howard County?" Knapp asked. "People aren't there yet. But what's the ultimate structure that it should be?"
Dyan Brasington, vice president of the Division of Economic and Community Outreach at Towson University, said that economic development remains a county government office in most of the Washington, D.C., region.
Montgomery County appears to be trying to get the "best of both worlds" in keeping an economic development office in the county government and creating an outside organization to help with strategic planning and providing the business community with a platform, said Brasington, who also has been economic development director in Montgomery and Howard counties and president of the Tech Council of Maryland.
"Economic development is not a short-term endeavor, but a long-term one and you hope to transcend government administrations so you keep a good strategic program going for your community that requires that it is longer than one elected term," Brasington said. "It doesn't sound too negative to me. It's positive when it gets others involved."
David Iannucci, executive director of the Baltimore County Department of Economic Development, agreed.
"If it suits local needs, that's important," Iannucci said. "Every jurisdiction has to find out what suits its needs."
Staff Writer Erin Cunningham contributed to this report.