Econ­o­mist: Grow county’s town cen­ters

Ad­vises de-em­pha­siz­ing big-box, keep­ing ru­ral econ­omy strong

The Calvert Recorder - - Front Page - By TA­MARA WARD tward@somd­

Calvert County’s De­part­ment of Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment and econ­o­mist Anir­ban Basu pre­sented pri­or­i­ties to the Board of County Com­mis­sion­ers on Tues­day, and Basu de­liv­ered a mes­sage to keep growth to the town cen­ters and de-em­pha­size big-box stores.

Basu, CEO of Sage Pol­icy Group Inc., was hired by the county to write its five-year eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment plan for 2017-2021, an up­date

to a pre­vi­ous re­port es­tab­lish­ing Calvert’s eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment pri­or­i­ties.

“This is to help guide the county for­ward from 2017 on­ward, think­ing about cur­rent eco­nomic trends and how cir­cum­stances are chang­ing in Mary­land and the Wash­ing­ton Metropoli­tan area and in Calvert County, and how to make sure that col­lec­tively the county is po­si­tioned [with] eco­nomic

and fis­cal sus­tain­abil­ity,” ex­plained Basu. He said he looked at shift­ing de­mo­graph­ics in the county and prior rel­e­vant eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment and plan­ning doc­u­ments; con­ducted eco­nomic, de­mo­graphic and bud­getary data analy­ses; and led three fo­cus groups with stake­hold­ers.

“The great­est threat to the county ar­guably is a rapidly ag­ing pop­u­la­tion,” noted Basu, ex­plain­ing that the county’s pop­u­la­tion went from 21,000 in 1970 to 86,000 in 2005. How­ever, with the lack of in­flux of newer house­holds over the last 12 years, that pop­u­la­tion has aged.

One of the in­di­ca­tors of this trend is the de­cline in school en­roll­ment. He later said the county’s 30and 40-year-old pop­u­la­tion, those who tra­di­tion­ally have school-aged chil­dren, is shrink­ing.

Basu said the mil­len­nial gen­er­a­tion is the largest and most ed­u­cated gen­er­a­tion in Amer­i­can his­tory.

“They are the fu­ture, like it or not. They will be the fu­ture en­trepreneurs and tax­pay­ers,” said Basu. “Calvert County has yet to re­ally at­tract a sig­nif­i­cant share of that pop­u­la­tion.”

Basu said the county should ad­dress the dearth of in-mi­gra­tion of younger fam­i­lies and work­ers.

On the up­side, Basu re­ported the es­ti­mated prop­erty taxes from Do­min­ion Cove Point LNG is $40 mil­lion, which he said pro­vide an op­por­tu­nity for a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in ser­vices, keep a line on taxes for the com­mu­nity and keep the county’s bond rat­ing high.

The econ­o­mist made three strate­gic rec­om­men­da­tions to the BOCC for the next five years, one of

which is to rad­i­cally ac­cel­er­ate the de­vel­op­ment of town cen­ters.

“One of the goals here is to not be Wal­dorf,” Basu re­peat­edly stressed. “To not have end­less sprawl and chew up open space in the process.”

“Wal­dorf’s phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion does not speak to the as­pi­ra­tions of Calvert County stake­hold­ers,” said Basu, re­fer­ring to fo­cus group feed­back.

With re­gard to in­creas­ing the size of the town cen­ters, Basu said peo­ple would like more places to work, have a lively com­mer­cial sec­tor and have more places to eat and shop. A com­pact town cen­ter with plenty to do can fur­ther the county’s strong tax base.

“The nicest com­mu­ni­ties in the world of­ten at­tract a lot of vis­i­tors,” Basu said later in the pre­sen­ta­tion.

He said places like Dunkirk pro­vide op­por­tu­ni­ties and space for growth and im­prove­ment with at­trac­tive­ness for busi­nesses and younger fam­i­lies. How­ever, he ac­knowl­edged some Hungtin­gown cit­i­zens’ clear dis­in­ter­est in town cen­ter ex­pan­sion.

“That said, in a democ­racy ev­ery voice should be heard, not sim­ply the loud­est,” Basu said, fur­ther not­ing that cit­i­zens have dif­fer­ent as­pi­ra­tions for their com­mu­ni­ties.

“Peo­ple hear the loud-

est,” later said Com­mis­sion­ers’ Pres­i­dent Tom Hejl (R), adding that he has talked to many res­i­dents about their de­sires. “The loud­est doesn’t work. There are a lot of peo­ple that want ex­actly what you have in this out­line — in par­tic­u­lar, not be­ing Wal­dorf.” He said if the county does not di­ver­sify and al­low the town cen­ters to be what they were de­signed to be, the county will fail.

Basu’s sec­ond rec­om­men­da­tion was that the county mas­sively in­crease in­cen­tives to agri-busi­nesses.

“The sub­ur­ban sprawl is ever present and has to be guarded against,” said Basu. “One of the keys is to keep the marker for farms as farms.”

Basu said it is im­por­tant to make sure there are buy­ers who want to pur­chase farms for sale as farms and not for de­vel­op­ment, even if they shift op­er­a­tions to grow some­thing else.

“One of the goals of this rec­om­men­da­tion is to po­si­tion Calvert County to at­tract a dis­pro­por­tion­ate share of the en­trepreneurs for a ru­ral econ­omy,” said Basu of the agri­cul­tural busi­nesses, in­clud­ing or­gan­ics, vine­yards and farm-to-ta­ble op­er­a­tions. “It would be very prof­itable for this county to sig­nal to those en­trepreneurs

‘you are welcome here in this county.’”

His third rec­om­men­da­tion was the cre­ation of an Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Ad­vi­sory Com­mis­sion.

Com­mis­sion­ers’ Vice Pres­i­dent Evan Slaugh­en­houpt (R) had con­cerns about the pos­si­ble im­pact of the county’s past ef­forts to con­trol growth, specifically res­i­den­tial.

“We want to have ru­ral, but it costs money to be ru­ral. If we don’t de­velop our town cen­ters more ro­bustly with eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment … does that not put a greater ex­pense on peo­ple who are in the ru­ral area via prop­erty taxes, to the point that it gets too ex­pen­sive to live there or too ex­pen­sive to farm?” ques­tioned Slaugh­en­houpt.

Basu said if peo­ple have places to live, like in town cen­ters, it will re­duce the

de­mand for agri­cul­tural land to build sub­di­vi­sions, and pre­serve the county’s ru­ral her­itage.

Com­mis­sioner Pat Nut­ter (R) in­quired about the nu­mer­ous clos­ings of large stores and shop­ping cen­ters and how it af­fects com­mu­ni­ties like Calvert.

“It’s been a re­ally dif­fi­cult time for com­mu­nity main streets. These are the gath­er­ing places, places that don’t have a ma­jor mall,” said Basu, re­fer­ring to places like Prince Fred­er­ick. “These main streets have taken a pum­mel­ing. First, be­cause of the in­tro­duc­tion of big-box re­tail­ers, who could de­liver much lower prices at a much higher econ­omy of scale.”

Basu said the big-box re­tail­ers put a lot of pres­sure on main street re­tail­ers, forc­ing va­can­cies.

“De­spite the fact that this is our ninth year of eco­nomic re­cov­ery, this will be a record year for store clos­ings in Amer­ica,” shared the econ­o­mist. “And what we are start­ing to see are the big-boxes are clos­ing in much larger num­bers.”

Basu at­tributes the demise of the large stores to on­line re­tail­ers like Ama­zon. He said he does not dis­agree with big-boxes be­ing here, but he would tend to de-em­pha­size them. “I would em­pha­size small en­tre­pre­neur­ial spe­cialty re­tail, the kinds of things his­tor­i­cally seen on main streets. That’s where the county needs to go,” said Basu.

Slaugh­en­houpt sug­gested in­cor­po­rat­ing Basu’s in­put into the county’s com­pre­hen­sive plan.

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