- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
St. Mary’s County needs to diversify its economy. Government and community leaders have been saying that for years. But this time, they say, they really mean it.
The wakeup call came with the sequester, which kicked in March 1 and whose effects will be felt here in a matter of weeks unless Congress acts to replace these deep federal budget cuts.
St. Mary’s is particularly vulnerable because about 80 percent of the local economy is tied to Patuxent River Naval Air Station.
But even before the sequester, which could bring $3.5 billion in cuts to the budget of the Naval Air Systems Command this year, it was clear that the flood of federal money that turned St. Mary’s into one of the most prosperous communities in the country was slowing.
So now it is time to stop musing about the dangers to St. Mary’s of having all of its economic eggs in one basket and do something about it. Past time, really, as others have noted in recent weeks.
The first official step of county government, it appears, is going to be a study. The county is going to apply for a federal grant to complete an economic development strategy. If the grant is awarded the county will pony up $25,000 to match the grant for this study to assess the opportunities to diversify the economy.
That might not happen until summer, though, and time is wasting. Meanwhile here’s a good guess of what such a study may indicate. The highly educated, high-tech workforce that has been built up in St. Mary’s over the years in support of Pax River is an enormous human resource. This talent can be diversified to civilian use.
This is not a new idea. Many of those with deep knowledge of the skill set of the defense contracting community are already aware of this. Already plans have been developed for an initiative, called Southern Maryland 2020, and some specific steps to carry it out are under way.
For these initiatives to bear fruit the coordinated and united support of governments and private industry in Southern Maryland is required. The state government’s help and partnerships with higher education institutions must be enlisted as well.
All of Southern Maryland and the entire state has much to gain from developing these capabilities and stepping away from heavy dependence on federal spending.
However, doing this is going to require investment, both by the state and county governments. St. Mary’s County government set aside $7.5 million to respond to needs that may be associated with military base realignment and closure. Cuts in military spending are affecting this community now. It’s time to be aggressive, move fast and invest in concrete strategies.
This is a time of transition in St. Mary’s. There’s no time to waste with infighting and worrying about who might get the credit. The county commissioners and everyone else with a stake in this community have to be ready to seize the opportunity.