Regional economic development strategy unveiled

The Charles County commissioners have approved a memorandum of understanding among the three Southern Maryland counties to undertake an economic development strategy to boost small business startups.

The county commissioners of Calvert and St. Mary’s counties will be asked by their respective economic development departments to also approve the MOU in the next few weeks.

The agreement binds the three counties, the College of Southern Maryland and the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland in a pact to “pursue a regional mission for economic development and to strengthen the Regional Innovation Ecosystem in Southern Maryland,” according to the memorandum.

Dubbed the Southern Maryland 2025 Initiative, the plan will focus on promoting “quality of life assets” to attract businesses and skilled workers, providing resources to support local entrepreneurial businesses, and offering support to startups to help them grow and diversify.

Darrell Brown, Charles County’s director of economic development, told the Charles commissioners that the partnership fulfills one of the key objectives of his department’s five-year strategic plan.

“I’ve heard from several of you that, from time to time … [the] economic development [department] should toot our horn,” Brown said. “I’d like to take the opportunity to toot our horn by saying … that this is a concrete example of the department executing on the five-year plan.”

Deputy director Marcia Keeth explained that the effort to develop a regional entrepreneurship strategy began in 2014 with the launch of the Southern Maryland Technology Transfer Pilot Program by the then-Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development. Funded by a federal grant, the pilot program studied ways of encouraging small businesses to license and commercialize technological innovations that had been developed at the region’s military bases.

“One of the things that was identified in that whole process is that we don’t have mechanisms for good regional collaboration here in Southern Maryland,” Keeth explained. “We … have some regional activities and initiatives, but as always our own counties are always our first priority.”

Last year the Pittsburgh-based community and economic development consulting firm Fourth Economy was hired to find ways of improving regional collaboration through the identification of problems that are common to all three counties, which the counties could work together to solve.

“We are now in the final phases of that project and result has been this MOU and the initiatives that go with it,” Keeth said.

To carry out the Southern Maryland 2025 Initiative, an advisory board consisting of representatives of all the signatories will work with county tourism offices to identify a “common inventory of quality of life assets and events” that can be used to promote Southern Maryland as a place to live and start a business.

An online portal will also be created to help entrepreneurs and small business owners identify nearby resources, potential partners and projects with commercialization potential, Keeth said.

The program will also foster training courses and peer support networks designed to help local business owners grow and partner with other businesses, organizations and government agencies.

The Tri-County Council will serve as the project’s “fiscal agent” and provide administrative support to the advisory board. CSM will take the lead on establishing the startup support system and developing small business growth strategies.

“It seems like a very collaborative project between the three counties,” said Charles Commissioner Gilbert Bowling III (D). “When it comes to where some of these projects take off and where this will benefit us, I think the opportunity zones we’ve spoken about before [are] a prime example of where this can kind of blossom.”

The town of Indian Head, the Waldorf Urban Redevelopment Corridor and the proposed Waldorf Station project along U.S. 301 at the Prince George’s County line have all received federal “opportunity zone” designations, which qualifies them to receive private investment funds for redevelopment and revitalization.

Bowling pointed out that while Indian Head has water and sewer connections already in place, there is a need for office space there to serve startup businesses. He suggested that a public-private partnership could look into constructing small, affordable office buildings on their own initiative without tenants lined up in advance — a process that builders often call “spec building.”

“It is clear that there is a challenge in Indian Head as it relates to leasing office space,” Brown said. With regard to spec building, Brown said, “That’s a policy question that will have to be addressed at the appropriate time.”

Following the presentation and discussion, the Charles commissioners voted unanimously to approve the MOU. Should the other two Southern Maryland counties, CSM and the Tri-County Council all sign it, the partnership will go into effect retroactively as of May 1 and run through the end of June 2020, with automatic annual renewals.

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