Working in the Zone
As the Director of Harford County’s Office of Economic Development (OED), Jim Richardson points to a map in a conference room in the County office building at 220 S. Main St., in Bel Air. He traces his finger over a tightly clustered area as he explains this is where he and his office concentrate a significant portion of their efforts – the inverted “T” zone that has been the County’s road map for over 30 years. “Harford County has been following a ‘smart growth’ plan since 1980,” says Richardson. “We know our development zone, and we haven’t really strayed.”
The inverted ‘T’ Richardson draws delineates the development envelope bordered by Route 40 and I-95 from Joppatowne to Havre de Grace and the Route 24 roadway stretching from Edgewood to Forest Hill. The rest of the county, not including the 73,000 acres at Aberdeen Proving Ground, consists of farms and agricultural enterprises, low-density development areas and a smattering of “village” type shopping centers that serve the basic needs of a particular population with gas stations, convenience stores and sub shops. “Most people won’t believe this, but 80 percent of the county is still agricultural or low density development.”
Richardson grew up in Harford County, the sixth generation of the Richardson family that still operates a farm in Pylesville. He graduated from North Harford High School and only moved away while he earned his bachelors and masters degree in economics from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and worked briefly for the USDA in Washington, D.C. He began working for Harford County in 1998 as the Director of Human Resources, a post he held for over seven years. In 2006, County Executive David Craig appointed Richardson to his current position when the former director, Tom Sadowski, left to join the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore.
“If I had to describe what I’m here for, what this office is here for, in one phrase, it would be ‘that we serve as a business advocate to the County Government,’” says Richardson.
The Office, an agency of the county government, has four missions – business retention, business development, marketing and tourism. “Some citizens may think that all we do is bring in new companies, when in fact, one of our biggest jobs is business retention. Eighty percent of new jobs come from existing companies, so we want to keep them successful so that they stay in Harford County.”
Hailed as an economic panacea, the Base Realignment and Closure Act (BRAC) of 2005 was compliant and technically complete in September of this year. While BRAC may not have been quite the floodgate of economic prosperity that many imagined it would be, Richardson projects there will be a five-year settling in period before the full effects can be measured. “Many defense contractors only opened small offices instead of moving everything and everybody here. They are taking a wait and see approach because of the economic crisis and the federal government’s threats of billions in defense cuts,” he says.
“BRAC was very important in keeping Harford County strong during the recent and continuing economic crisis,” observes Richardson. “We fared much better than other counties in keeping our housing values and unemployment numbers manageable. However, Harford County needs to protect itself against future BRAC and BRAC-like initiatives that could take away the defense community as easily as it brought it to us. We have developed a visioning plan that would allow Harford County to thrive in the future.”
Richardson explains that Harford County government and business leaders are positioning the County as a “technopolis,” a place where technology, electronics and communications companies can locate and move from incubator services through the business lifecycle. He states, “We’ve been given this gift of BRAC that has brought all this research and technology to us. Now, we have to find ways to bring that gift out from behind the fence and into the community to become a center of research and development for that segment of cyberspace.”
“We’re looking at places like Austin, Texas, Cummings Research Park in Huntsville, Ala., and University Research Park in Madison, Wisc.,” Richardson says. “The goal is to create a cluster of facilities, educational institutions, retail establishments and cultural centers that attract talented individuals who stay and become part of the community. We’re asking ourselves and the business community to answer the question: ‘How does Harford County, the Northeastern corridor, become the next research triangle in the United States?’”
As the single largest employer in the County and the third-largest “economic engine” in the State behind Fort Meade and the University System of Maryland (based on number of employees), it would be easy to point to APG as Harford County’s lifeline. But, while Richardson acknowledges APG’s importance, he quickly points out that “there is more to Harford County than APG and BRAC.” He states, “We have a robust and diverse economy. We have a very strong distribution industry. Kohl’s was a real coup and win for us. We have a burgeoning manufacturing industry that we are also cultivating. Clorox. Worthington Armstrong. Alcore. Cytech.” With Harford County’s central location on the East Coast and easy access to I-95 and Route 40, it’s no wonder those companies and others like Sephora, Frito-Lay and Nutramax decided to make Harford County their home. “This balance of industries is important for establishing and maintaining a strong tax base to support the County,” he adds.
Richardson describes that the biggest challenge Harford County faces right now is transportation and road improvements related to BRAC. He shares that Harford County asked the State for $131 million to cover those projects and only received $41 million. “We’re talking to everyone we can. We need road improvements in and out of APG. We made some progress with service improvements to the MARC and Amtrak lines, but more can be done. We’re now looking at ways we can broker deals with private and public sectors to find creative ways to solve some of these transportation issues.
“People in the new economy will be looking at certain things,” Richardson points out. “They are saying, ‘I want to be creative, be productive and enjoy my life.’ They want to connect – through work, through art, through school. They don’t want to drive to a different city or county to experience that. They want those choices to be in their own backyard. We’re working to make that happen.
“The people who set up Harford County were really quite smart,” he adds. “Like with our country’s Founding Fathers, we are the beneficiary of some very intelligent people and planning. With the pro-business atmosphere, highly skilled workforce and availability of land, people are looking at Harford County as a new frontier.”
Clearly, Jim Richardson is a man who believes in the vision. He is working to help make Harford County the best it can be. He is definitely “in the zone.” Summing up what makes Harford County so special, he says, “We have the land. We have the labor. We have the quality of life. Along the I-95 corridor, Harford County is the best value for the dollar.” I95