- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
A regenerated economic development department with a focus on “economic gardening” is Eugene T. Lauer’s proudest accomplishment as interim economic development director, he said. There’s also a new website in the making.
Lauer, a former county administrator, was hired in February 2011 by the current Charles County board of commissioners to reconstitute a department all of whose staff had been fired by the previous board. But he took the job only temporarily, and last month the commissioners hired Kwasi G. Holman as his permanent replacement. Lauer will retire at the end of this month after showing Holman, former president and chief executive of the Prince George’s County Economic Development Corp., the ropes.
“I’m pleased with what we’ve been able to do over the last 16 months. When I got here it was truly a blank slate: no staff, no anything. … My main mission has been, we’ve got to get something up and operating, have the capability existing, form a staff, budget, the websites, that sort of thing, get those really existing and ready to hand off to the next entity,” Lauer said.
With three full-time workers, including the director, and three part-timers, he’s succeeded in reconstituting the department.
“Here’s where Gene was so impressive: We had no department. He will tell you the economic development department that remained was in four file boxes. It took someone with Gene’s experience and connections — he knew where everything was,” said commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D). “He got a team together and set them up. Because he was so trusted, it wasn’t like he had to ask for permission every time he did something. He just got something going.”
Lauer gives himself credit for some innovations as well, including the county’s fledgling Small Local Business Enterprise program, which will give priority in county contracting to registered small businesses with a Charles County presence.
“I think that’s going to be a great program that we have in place. It passes all legal tests, so I think that’s certainly something I would put down as a significant accomplishment. Obviously the next couple years, how it develops and gets implemented is how its success is measured and tweaked. This is a good start,” he said.
Previous development efforts focused on attracting interest from big-name companies, like large military contractors. But, starting with last year’s county economic summit, efforts shifted to helping small, homegrown efforts grow, Lauer said.
Ken Gould, president of the Business Alliance of Charles County, sees this change as one of Lauer’s most important contributions.
“A key component of economic development is helping businesses already here succeed and be strong. If businesses already here are doing well and are happy, that’s going to be attractive to businesses that are looking to come into the county,” Gould said. “Gene did a good job of helping businesses already in the county succeed and survive in what has been a pretty crummy economy for five years now.”
Staffers also are working on a new economic development website to replace “Meet Charles,” the site that in turn was first unveiled as a replacement for the county’s original economic development staff. But content on meetcharlescounty.com, which went up in June 2010, a month after the staffers were fired, seems to have been maintained for only a few months. It features an alphabetized list of county businesses, an “Entrepreneur of the Month” section last updated for November 2010 and a “Charles Biz Blog” with five posts, all of them made Aug. 30, 2010.
For the sake of continuity, the county will keep the old URL, but redirect to the new site, Lauer said.
“We will have something that’s pretty good and not the outdated stuff that’s largely on there now. Of course, it will be separate from tourism because tourism is no longer part of the department. Tourism will have its own site and page and we will have our own,” Lauer said.
Online content needs to be fresh to attract existing businesses to a new place, Lauer said.
“In the field of economic development, what keeps getting drilled into you is people have to get their [information] instantaneously and they’d better see what they’re after in the first three clicks or they’re on to something else. [The new site is] all geared to get the information you want quickly, in a very retrievable and understandable way, with correct tabs and topic headings. This, we found out, has been a major effort,” Lauer said.
More than any particular effort, Gould credits Lauer with getting things going again.
“He did an outstanding job pulling everything back together, settling things down when they kind of went haywire. I’m sorry to see him go, but I’m happy for him. Clearly what he wanted to do was fix things and bring someone else in to do the job, and he has,” Gould said.