Often accused of being unfriendly to business, some Montgomery County lawmakers want to change the way the county woos tax dollars and jobs.

The county's Department of Economic Development -- charged with marketing the county and making it more accessible to businesses -- should become more "entrepreneurial" and less of a government bureaucracy, said County Council President Roger Berliner, D-Bethesda, reflecting on discussions with business leaders.

Examiner Archives
  • MontCo passes bill to spur economic development (11/1/11)
  • Resolution opposes MontCo's efforts to spur economy (10/8/11)
  • The county has a ways to go to achieve that, say some merchants.

    Businesses coming to Montgomery County get bogged down by zoning and permitting processes, said Ginanne Italiano, president of the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce.

    State taxes and regulations in Maryland are burdensome enough that some companies pick business-friendly Virginia over Maryland, said Morris Segall, president of Baltimore-based SPG Trend Advisors.

    A county-run economic development agency also can be led astray by political motivations, said Scott York, chairman of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, which is considering similar changes.

    Many in Montgomery point to the economic development authorities in places like Anne Arundel and Fairfax counties as a solution. Though those organizations are funded by the local governments, decisions are made by boards of directors made up of business leaders rather than county employees.

    Unlike government agencies, these development authorities aren't required to release information to the public about ongoing activities, something that's reassuring to publicity-shy businesses, said Fairfax EDA President and CEO Gerald Gordon.

    "We don't require layers of approval to do things," Gordon said. "We try to think like business people."

    However, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett said he isn't convinced taking economic development out of the hands of the government will benefit the county, and current Economic Development Director Steve Silverman called the suggested changes "a solution in search of a problem."

    Silverman pointed to the Fairfax development authority's $7 million budget versus his $525,000 budget as the reason why Fairfax's economy has had stronger growth than Montgomery's over the past 20 years -- growing by 132.5 percent compared with Montgomery's 87.3 percent, according to data from Steve Fuller, director of the George Mason University Center for Regional Analysis.

    Gordon said more funding isn't the sole solution to attracting more businesses.

    "Some people think if you change the structure you change the underlying attitudes," he said. "It's the underlying attitudes that need to be changed."

    But even if the county changes its approach, results won't come overnight, said Segall, noting that economic growth is a challenge for both Maryland and Virginia right now.

    "There's going to be a whole lot of tap-dancing here in the state of Maryland to change the perception that this is an anti-business state," he said.