Harford’s Manufacturing and Distribution Centers
Traveling the rural roads in North Harford or stuck in traffic in the “development zone,” you may find it difficult to imagine being surrounded by buildings the size of two, three, even 17 NFL-size football fields. Yet, these low-profile behemoths are dotted throughout the county, masked by landscaping and tucked away in industrial parks, literally hidden in plain sight.
Their relative physical obscurity and lack of consumer foot traffic would have many wondering if these businesses were destined for anonymity. Yet the brand names linked to the work that goes on behind their façade is an impressive list recognized by most.
“If it’s made in the world, it’s made in Harford County,” says Jim Richardson, Director of the Office of Economic Development for Harford County. “B&B Precision Wire in Forest Hill even fabricated a part for the Mars Rover spacecraft.”
Food, furniture, cosmetics, snacks, precision optics, construction materials … the list of items made in or shipped from Harford County is impressive. The availability of large spaces and the proximity to Interstate 95, the railways and the Port of Baltimore make manufacturing and distribution ideal industries here. “You can reach 50 percent of the United States population overnight from Harford County,” adds Richardson. “That makes us very attractive.”
Enterprise zone incentives add to the package for businesses looking to setting up shop in Harford County. According to Richardson, the Economic Development Opportunity Fund encourages new investment, redevelopment business retention, and the creation of jobs by complementing traditional lenders and state or federal funding programs.
The zone in Greater Aberdeen and Havre de Grace is nearly 9,000 acres and encompasses 14 business parks including Perryman Industrial Park, North Gate Business Park, Water’s Edge Corporate Campus, and Chesapeake Industrial Park. Slated to expire in June 2016, the incentives require a minimum capital investment of $75,000 and the creation of two new jobs.
The zone in Edgewood/Joppa is nearly 4,000 acres and includes Lakeside Business Park, Emmorton Business Park, Prologis Park and Joppa Commerce Center. The minimum capital investment is $50,000 and five new jobs to be eligible for the economic incentives that also expire in June 2016.
In addition to Enterprise Zone incentives and job creation tax credits, Harford County’s allure is bolstered by a robust natural gas pipeline and infrastructure from Baltimore Gas & Electric (BGE) that allows companies to take advantage of the lower commodity prices on natural gas.
Attracting and retaining the manufacturing and distribution industries is crucial to maintaining a diverse economic eco-system in the county, explains Richardson. It creates stability in our economy when there is less of a dependency on any one sector.
Adding to potential future growth in manufacturing and distribution in Harford County is the $150 million improvement project at the Port of Baltimore. Leveraging the expansion project of the Panama Canal, which will add a third and deeper lane of locks and double capacity when construction is completed in 2015, the Port of Baltimore dredged the channel leading to its marine terminal and installed 40-story mega-cranes to accommodate the Panamax and New Panamax ships that will pass through. The Port of Baltimore will join the Port of Virginia in Norfolk as the only two East Coast ports that will have the ability to accommodate the larger vessels.
The Regional Economic Studies Institute of Towson University posits that the expansion could increase containerized cargo passing through the Port between 10 and 25 percent, creating between 55 and 138 direct jobs. For Harford County, that could lead to more businesses looking for a viable location to operate their distribution centers or manufacturing facilities.
In contrast to the opportunity is the competition looming as Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz recently announced plans to develop the 3,300-plus acres left vacant by the 2012 closing of RG Steel at Sparrows Point. In a press release from his office, Kamenetz outlines plans that call for the conversion of the peninsula into zoned areas concentrating on four major opportunity areas for business attraction and job growth: port and maritime uses, clean energy, advanced manufacturing and assembly, and distribution, logistics and freight. “We don’t operate in a vacuum,” says Richardson. “To remain competitive, we are always looking at what’s happening outside the county so that we can plan accordingly.”
Providing a ready workforce is one area that Richardson and his team are looking at supplementing. “Manufacturing and distribution careers don’t always require a college degree,” shares Richardson. “But the pressure to attend school and the stigma often associated with ‘blue-collar’ jobs is a lot to overcome.”
That challenge is not unique to Harford County. Across the country, companies in these industries lament the lack of workers applying and qualifying for the jobs they have available. The qualifications come in the form of critical thinking, independent thinking, computer skills and communications skills. Though not requiring a formal advanced degree, many of these positions call for experience or knowledge of robotics, fluid dynamics, engineering, or logistics. “These jobs are not minimum wage jobs,” affirms Richardson. “They are $15 to $20 an hour often with benefits making for a nice income.”
Baltimore native turned national celebrity hosting Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs,” Mike Rowe has started a campaign (www.mikeroweworks.com) meant to turn around the perception of “blue collar” employment. In an interview with AOL Jobs, Rowe summarizes the dilemma: “Though some 12 million Americans are unemployed, roughly 3 million jobs go unfilled in the U.S. because too few people have the skills necessary to do jobs such as plumbing, welding, electrical, construction and related occupations. It’s a symptom of a bigger problem. It’s the way we look at work. It’s the way we approach our vocation and the degree to which we assign our identity to what we do.”
In a newly formed committee comprised of the Office of Economic Development, the Susquehanna Workforce Network, Harford Community College and the Harford County Public Schools, Richardson and committee members will be mirroring Mike Rowe’s crusade locally. “We’re planning a campaign that encourages alternative routes to a college education,” explains Richardson. “Similar to how ‘Rosie the Riveter’ rallied women to consider factory jobs during World War II, we’re envisioning a campaign that shows our young people that there are good-paying jobs for all interests. We’re in the planning stages, but we want to feature success stories of individuals who took an alternate route – maybe apprenticeships or internships or just working their way through the ranks – and are loving what they are doing. “
With 10,500 employees in those industries in Harford County, the contribution of direct (payroll) and indirect (sales, property, etc.) taxes, in addition to the support of other local entities through additional consumer spending, the economic impact is profound. While the companies and their buildings may be difficult to locate, the influence of Harford County’s manufacturing and distribution industry is perfectly clear. I95