With some 22,000 jobs and billions of dollars coming through Patuxent River Naval Air Station, the installation is the economic driver of St. Mary’s County and has been for decades.
Now an old group is being reassembled to work on a new master plan to diversity the local economy while strengthening what is already here.
The county commissioners re-established Tuesday the St. Mary’s County Economic Development Commission. When its members are appointed, the group will oversee a new $99,000 Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy with the help of consultants and the staff from the St. Mary’s County Department of Economic and Community Development.
“This is not a study group or a task force,” said George Sparling, county attorney, but rather “a formal arm of county government.”
The federal government awarded $49,000 to fund the development of the economic strategy, while St. Mary’s County government and the state each provided $25,000 to do the work.
The new commission should have five to seven members, appointed by the county commissioners, coming from the private sector and other areas of the local economy such as labor, defense, agriculture and tourism, Robin Finnacom, acting director of the St. Mary’s department of the economic and community development, said Wednesday.
The commission will oversee the creation of a master plan for the economic development strategy and how to implement it, she said.
Besides looking at diversifying the local economy away from reliance on federal defense spending, “we also look at how we strengthen the things we continue to care about,” like agriculture and tourism, she said. “Retain the best of who we are ... and strengthen our ability to succeed economically in the future.”
One target for economic diversification could be light manufacturing and assembly operations, she said.
“What is the unknown out there that we’re not looking at?” said Commissioner Todd Morgan (R) Thursday. “My hope is they’re going to turn over some stones we haven’t seen before.”
In August, there were 52,918 people in St. Mary’s County who had a job with at least 39,688 (76 percent) holding a job in the county, said Laura Boonchaisri, economic development coordinator for St. Mary’s County government. There are about 22,400 workers on the Navy base, which does not count the number of military contractors outside its gates, she said.
Morgan at Tuesday’s meeting said it is “the commissioners’ desire and intent to move forward with the economic development of this county,” with the commissioners “being in charge of running this and not subverting it to ad-hoc organizations. The citizens should know ... we can begin the process of moving this thing forward in spite of the federal government and the Maryland legislature’s decisions that are imposed on us.”
St. Mary’s County Commission President Jack Russell (D) said, “We’ve got now a structure [where] we can have citizens in the community decide their own destiny.”
In addition to the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, the Southern Maryland Navy Alliance was funded $75,000 to create a separate strengths, weaknesses and opportunities report for St. Mary’s.
The St. Mary’s County Economic Development Commission was originally created by the commissioners in 1989. In 2003, the commissioners replaced the commission with a council under the late John Savich, when he was the director of the department of economic and community development. At some point the council “fell into disuse or somehow ceased to function,” Sparling said, and it was abolished in 2011.
The new commission members will serve staggered terms, for three years.
“It takes a special person to step up,” Finnacom said. “That’s not an easy role to fill given the weight of government those goes along with it.”