Fight over fracking reveals key differences
Counties want to keep young residents
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.