MEDA ses­sion shares ideas to bridge Up­per Shore unity

Cecil Whig - - LOCAL - By KATIE TABELING kta­bel­[email protected]­cil­whig.com .

— The Mary­land Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment As­so­ci­a­tion (MEDA) brought key lead­ers from Ce­cil, Kent and Queen Anne’s coun­ties to­gether with pri­vate sec­tor rep­re­sen­ta­tives Thurs­day morn­ing at Ce­cil Col­lege to dis­cuss chal­lenges and op­por­tu­ni­ties that await the Up­per Shore re­gion.

“We strongly be­lieve that eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment changes lives,” MEDA Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Pamela Ruff said in her open­ing re­marks of what was billed as the Up­per Shore Ru­ral Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Ses­sion. “Our mem­bers and those with whom they col­lab­o­rate ev­ery day work tire­lessly to create op­por­tu­ni­ties for our cit­i­zens in­spire in­no­va­tion for our busi­nesses and our en­tire com­mu­nity.”

Spon­sored by PNC Fi­nan­cial Ser­vices Group Inc., the five-hour ses­sion in­vited sev­eral guest speak­ers, in­clud­ing Heather Gramm, MEDA vice pres­i­dent and the as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of Fred­er­ick County Of­fice of Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment. Three pan­eled dis­cus­sions brought op­por­tu­ni­ties for those in at­ten­dance to ask ques­tions about work­force de­vel­op­ment, op­por­tu­nity zones and in­fra­struc­ture.

The goal, Ruff ex­plained, was to spark new ideas, pro­vide up­dates about cur­rent ef­forts and fos­ter con­nec­tions with oth­ers who live and work in the re­gion. The first two speak­ers of the day stressed that the three coun­ties should re­think their eco­nomic chal­lenges as one re­gion rather sep­a­rate ju­ris­dic­tions.

Up­per Shore Re­gional Coun­cil (USRC) Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Su­san O’Neill — who is fa­mil­iar to lo­cals af­ter serv­ing as eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment man­ager for Ce­cil County un­til last year — touted sev­eral new ini­tia­tives that the non­profit launched this year, like the Up­per Shore agri­cul­ture eq­uity in­cen­tive fund. That $150,000 fund pro­vides a match of $15,000 of hard costs for farm­ers who started in the last decade. The USRC also cre­ated a small busi­ness mar­ket­ing pro­gram that fo­cuses on rais­ing the pro­files of main street busi­nesses and forged a pi­lot ru­ral broad­band pro­gram.

As the Up­per Shore coun­ties have grown, O’Neill shared that it was time for the USRC to look in­ward and de­velop a one to three-year strate­gic plan, with some as­sis­tance from Thomas Tut­tle, of An­napo­lis-based con­sult­ing firm Tut­tle Group In­ter­na­tional.

“I would en­cour­age stake­hold­ers to fully en­gage in a re­al­is­tic con­ver­sa­tion re­gard­ing the re­gion and the or­ga­ni­za­tion, and come up with an ob­jec­tive — and what I would say not sug­ar­coat­ing it — a strat­egy,” O’Neill said.

Tut­tle stressed the im­por­tance of col­lab­o­ra­tion, not­ing that prob­lems arise when “the im­pact of hard­work­ing peo­ple are not aligned to­ward a com­mon vi­sion” that pro­duces the best re­sults. He pro­posed that the USRC steps up as a fa­cil­i­ta­tor to im­prove the align­ment of key play­ers in gov­ern­ment, busi­ness and ed­u­ca­tion in a re­gional vi­sion.

Tut­tle and O’Neill con­ducted in­ter­views with di­rec­tors

NORTH EAST

of other re­gional coun­cils, Mary­land De­part­ment of Com­merce staff, and sent out sur­veys for other key stake­hold­ers. Four­teen peo­ple com­pleted the sur­vey, and the top ranked eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment strat­egy as se­lected by par­tic­i­pants was to ac­cel­er­ate the growth of ex­ist­ing busi­nesses.

“When I saw that, it made my heart warm, be­cause all the en­light­ened eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment pro­fes­sion­als will say that’s the No. 1 job,” Tut­tle said. “There are other jobs, but if you don’t do that, then you don’t have much hope about do­ing the other strate­gies.”

The sec­ond high­est rank­ing re­sponse was im­prov­ing busi­ness, gov­ern­ment and ed­u­ca­tion col­lab­o­ra­tion. The more Tut­tle thought about this, the more he be­lieved the USRC was best suited for the job, since in­di­vid­ual coun­ties were ze­roed in on their own work. But for that re­la­tion­ship to flour­ish, he noted, com­mu­ni­ca­tion needed to im­prove.

“One ob­sta­cle is the busi­ness cul­ture on the Eastern Shore, which causes many to be re­luc­tant to share in­for­ma­tion with a gov­ern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tive about how their busi­ness op­er­ates and their needs for growth,” he said. “I re­ally be­lieve that by open­ing up and over­com­ing this re­luc­tance to share in­for­ma­tion will take time and re­quires in­ter­views that are ex­pe­ri­enced and es­tab­lished a rap­port with se­nior busi­ness of­fi­cials. The lo­cal eco­nomic agen­cies are not up to do this … they’re up to their eye­balls al­ready.”

Much of the panel dis­cus­sion fo­cused on ex­ist­ing pro­grams for work­force de­vel­op­ment within ed­u­ca­tion and plans for in­fra­struc­ture, such as road­ways and broad­band. But the topic that cap­tured most of the dis­cus­sion was a panel led by Ce­cil County Eco­nomic Di­rec­tor Chris Moyer on op­por­tu­nity zones, a new fed­eral tax in­cen­tive pro­gram that aims to spur de­vel­op­ment.

De­vel­op­ing in op­por­tu­nity zones would al­low de­vel­op­ers and in­vestors to move cap­i­tal gains tax from other prop­er­ties to in­vest in a piece of real es­tate in those ar­eas for a tax de­fer­ral. If that in­vest­ment stays in a qual­i­fied op­er­at­ing fund for a cer­tain pe­riod of time, in­vestors would see a re­duc­tion in tax li­a­bil­ity. The en­tire post-ac­qui­si­tion gain is ex­cluded from tax­able in­come if held in a fund for 10 years or more. The dead­line for how long the tax de­fer­ral MEDA Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Pamela Ruff de­liv­ers open­ing re­marks at the MEDA Ru­ral Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Ses­sion on Thurs­day morn­ing. Con­sul­tant Thomas Tut­tle shares rec­comen­da­tions for Ce­cil, Kent and Queen Anne’s county lead­ers, like us­ing the Up­per Shore Re­gional Coun­cil as a con­duit to de­velop one com­mon vi­sion for eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment for the re­gion.

is Dec. 31, 2026.

Ce­cil County has three op­por­tu­nity zones: one that stretches from Charlestown north to In­ter­state 95 and in­cludes all of Prin­ci­pio Busi­ness Park; an­other that cov­ers down­town Elk­ton; and one that en­com­passes 600 acres in Elk­ton south of U.S. Route 40 along Route 213. Kent and Queen Anne’s County each have one zone, split by the Ch­ester River. One that cov­ers Ch­ester­town in whole as well as the out­skirts fol­low­ing Route 213 and Route 20, and the other that stretches west of the river and goes beyond U.S. Route 301.

Chris Rockey, Greater Mary­land mar­ket man­ager in com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment bank­ing with PNC Bank; Sergi Kuz­menchuk, chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer of Mary­land De­part­ment of Hous­ing and Com­mu­nity De­vel­op­ment; and An­drew Fish, se­nior di­rec­tor of the Mary­land De­part­ment of Com­merce,

shed some more light about op­por­tu­nity zones, since many ques­tions still lin­gered af­ter the fed­eral gov­ern­ment is­sued more reg­u­la­tions in Oc­to­ber.

On the state level, there’s still ques­tions to be an­swered about the op­por­tu­nity zones, but Fish said that in a nut­shell, it all has to start with the in­vestor.

“The busi­ness own­ers has to be there in­vest­ing in eq­uity or cre­at­ing a fa­cil­ity in­side an op­por­tu­nity zone. That’s the kind of pre-work they need to do be­fore they con­sider what pro­grams can be lay­ered on top of that,” he said.

But he did elab­o­rate that the Up­per Shore re­gion is in a unique po­si­tion com­pared to the rest of Mary­land when it came to the job cre­ation tax credit. Un­like other parts of the state where the min­i­mum is 60 em­ploy­ees, in the three Up­per Shore coun­ties the thresh­old is only 10 jobs. Up­per Shore Re­gional Coun­cil Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Su­san O’Neill shares sev­eral up­com­ing projects com­ing from her of­fice that could ben­e­fit the three coun­ties.

Since PNC Bank was among the first of 40 op­por­tu­nity zone funds to crop up, Rockey was asked how he saw those funds be­ing pro­vided as a leader in the field. He said PNC’s real es­tate fund was look­ing at aug­ment­ing projects that could prove to be a boon to the com­mu­nity.

“What we can look at do­ing is iden­ti­fy­ing area trans­ac­tions that are re­ally aligned as part of a trans­for­ma­tional strat­egy or com­pre­hen­sive strat­egy for that com­mu­nity, where we can part­ner with a state that’s al­ready putting pub­lic dol­lars in,” he said. “This isn’t ‘a project that isn’t good.’ This is a project that makes projects that are sort of tee­ter­ing on the edge with cash flow work well, as well as pro­vid­ing cap­i­tal over a 10-year pe­riod for that to sta­bi­lize.”

Kuz­menchuk added it was im­por­tant to get ahead, and solv­ing ob­sta­cles to busi­ness de­vel­op­ment was in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant on the lo­cal gov­ern­ment side of things as well. He noted that op­por­tu­nity zone fund as­sets must be in­vested within a six-month pe­riod of the fund’s tax year, which does re­quire ex­pe­dited plan­ning.

“What you have to con­sider is how friendly is your en­vi­ron­ment for in­vest­ments,” he said. “Some­times, that’s as easy as stream­lin­ing per­mits. Would you like some of the real es­tate projects to be bogged down? Is there com­mu­nity sup­port? … Get­ting ahead of a lot of is­sues is very im­por­tant when these in­vestors come in and the funds are set up, so they’re not deal­ing with de­lays.”

CE­CIL WHIG PHO­TOS BY KATIE TABELING

A con­fer­ence room in Ce­cil Col­lege was packed dur­ing the MEDA Ru­ral Eco­nomic Devl­op­ment Ses­sion on Thurs­day morn­ing, where lead­ers from Ce­cil, Kent and Queen Anne’s coun­ties shared ideas for the fu­ture.

County Ex­ec­u­tive Alan Mc­Carthy, left, and Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Di­rec­tor Chris Moyer lis­ten to open­ing re­marks Thurs­day at the MEDA Ru­ral Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Ses­sion.

Chris Rockey, Greater Mary­land mar­ket man­ager in com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment bank­ing with PNC Bank shares de­tails about op­pro­tu­nity zones.

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