Economist: Grow county’s town centers
Advises de-emphasizing big-box, keeping rural economy strong
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.