Fight over frack­ing re­veals key dif­fer­ences

Coun­ties want to keep young res­i­dents

The Washington Times Daily - - METRO - BY J.F. MEILS

CUM­BER­LAND, MD. | Al­le­gany and Gar­rett, the state’s two west­ern­most coun­ties, tend to be lumped to­gether as “Moun­tain Mary­land,” their prob­lems sim­i­lar, their prospects equally mud­dled.

But the two coun­ties’ eco­nomic is­sues — and their ap­proaches to solv­ing them — dif­fer starkly.

In Al­le­gany, many prob­lems stem from the legacy of past re­liance on “whales,” big em­ploy­ers with large num­bers of good-pay­ing jobs that lay waste to com­mu­ni­ties when they leave.

In Gar­rett, a place that has al­ways re­lied on nat­u­ral re­sources to power its econ­omy, the ques­tion is not whether to keep do­ing that, but how.

What both coun­ties have in com­mon is ur­gency. If they don’t re­build their economies in ways that gen­er­ate more liv­ing-wage jobs soon, their youngest res­i­dents will con­tinue to flee, mak­ing it that much harder to at­tract the very com­pa­nies that could keep them close to home.

Ac­cord­ing to 2015 U.S. Cen­sus es­ti­mates, Al­le­gany has a me­dian house­hold in­come of just over $40,000, with 20 per­cent of its 70,000 res­i­dents liv­ing in poverty, mak­ing it the sec­ond-poor­est county in Mary­land, be­hind only Som­er­set on the Eastern Shore.

“We de­cided we weren’t go­ing to be look­ing for large-em­ploy­ment com­pa­nies any­more be­cause when they move out, it’s a huge hit,” said County Com­mis­sioner Wil­liam Valen­tine, Al­le­gany Re­pub­li­can.

The idea, ac­cord­ing to Mr. Valen­tine, is to tar­get com­pa­nies that will hire, or grow to, about 200-300 em­ploy­ees.

Part of the strat­egy to at­tract busi­nesses is con­struc­tion of ready-made work space in the county’s in­dus­trial parks, low­er­ing the ex­pense, time and reg­u­la­tory has­sle of set­ting up in a new lo­ca­tion.

How­ever, of Al­le­gany’s seven com­mer­cial parks, only five are full or mostly so. And the county’s new­est struc­ture, a 40,000-square-foot shell build­ing in Bar­ton Busi­ness Park fin­ished in 2016, sits empty.

Mean­while, Gar­rett — Mary­land’s west­ern­most county — gets al­most all its TV from Pitts­burgh or West Vir­ginia. It is beau­ti­ful and re­mote and peo­ple there trea­sure it for both those qual­i­ties. But Mary­land’s ex­pir­ing mora­to­rium on hy­draulic frac­tur­ing, or frack­ing, brought out the ugly in Gar­rett.

“I can say un­equiv­o­cally this is the most con­tro­ver­sial is­sue we’ve ever dealt with,” said County Com­mis­sioner Paul Ed­wards, Gar­rett Re­pub­li­can, who is the son of Sen. Ge­orge Ed­wards, be­fore Gov. Larry Ho­gan an­nounced his sup­port for a statewide frack­ing ban on March 17.

But while Mr. Ho­gan set­tled the frack­ing de­bate for now, the schism it opened be­tween the county’s farm­ers and the Deep Creek tourism in­dus­try is not clos­ing any­time soon.

Ac­cord­ing to a Septem­ber 2016 Opin­ionWorks sur­vey com­mis­sioned by the Ch­e­sa­peake Climate Ac­tion Net­work, 56 per­cent of Gar­rett County res­i­dents were in fa­vor of a frack­ing ban with 28 per­cent op­posed and 15 per­cent un­sure.

Mr. Ho­gan, whose 2014 elec­tion was made pos­si­ble in part by ru­ral vot­ers, was for­merly in fa­vor of frack­ing, say­ing in an Oc­to­ber 2016 meet­ing with the Bal­ti­more Sun’s editorial board that the state was sit­ting on a “gold mine” of nat­u­ral gas in Western Mary­land.

By pass­ing a ban in Mary­land, “We’re just de­cid­ing to do hy­draulic frac­tur­ing in other states,” said Billy Bishoff, pres­i­dent of Gar­rett County’s Farm Bureau and an out­spo­ken sup­porter of frack­ing.

Farm­ers like Mr. Bishoff are feel­ing the squeeze from the rise in prop­erty prices around Deep Creek Lake, a ma­jor eco­nomic en­gine for the county. Frack­ing could help farm­ers pro­duce in­come to keep up with ris­ing prop­erty taxes, he said, driven by the rise in prop­erty prices.

“I came to the con­clu­sion that I was go­ing to be the last gen­er­a­tion to farm my fam­ily’s land be­cause Deep Creek was driv­ing up prices to such a point that farm­ing there would no longer be prac­ti­cal for an­other gen­er­a­tion,” Mr. Bischoff said.

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