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For years county government staff and county commissioners tried to lure a new movie theater to St. Mary’s County, with starts and stops along the way with various companies.

When the news came in September that R/C Theatres plans to open a 12-screen theater in St. Mary’s County, the announcement initially said the move would hinge on financial incentives from St. Mary’s County government. That stipulation was quickly rescinded, but the movie theater is still supposed to come to California, across from the Wildewood shopping center, without any incentives from the county.

Now the St. Mary’s County Department of Economic and Community Development is working up a formal policy to offer tax incentives for other new businesses to move here.

The agency’s acting director, Robin Finnacom, wrote in a memorandum that “there has been little need to offer incentives given what has until recently been the steady and positive expansion of [Patuxent River Naval Air Station] over the last two decades.” But with the 2008 national recession, a reduction in defense spending, the continued threat of sequestration bringing deeper cuts and the need to diversify the economy, those days have passed.

“In the absence of a policy, both commissioners and staff are subject to personal appeals often lacking in substantive analysis of the return-on-investment the county would realize from the proposed public-private partnership,” Finnacom wrote.

St. Mary’s County government could offer tax abatements and tax incentives to those offering “a qualified project,” she told the commissioners Tuesday, meeting at least one of eight conditions. The county would be seeking projects that deal with unmanned aerial vehicles, are environmentally sensitive, bring new investment to targeted areas, use existing empty commercial space, eliminate blighted property, attract new services to targeted areas, or bring in jobs that pay at or above the prevailing wage for the area.

Before tax incentives are promised there would be negotiations, Finnacom said, that could include how many years the enterprise would pledge to stay in St. Mary’s County, how many jobs will be created or the amount of the investment, Finnacom said.

Tax increment financing can be offered to investors. Instead of paying the new property taxes on an improved property, the difference could be used by the developer to build some other infrastructure, she told the board. “It’s a way to use taxes that would otherwise not be there ... and use them to leverage something that’s needed today,” she said. The tax breaks would not apply to infrastructure improvements required by the zoning ordinance.

“I look at this as this board recognizing an opportunity,” said Commissioner Cindy Jones (R). “This is probably long overdue for our community.”

Commissioner Todd Morgan (R) said the community also wants certain amenities, though they may not create a lot of jobs.

“In a community such as ours, you have to want to be here,” Finnacom said. “Amenities have to be part of that discussion.”

There are other jurisdictions across the country actively lobbying for new businesses by offering incentives. “We don’t have that message. We need to be competitive as any other community,” she said.

The department will refine the proposed incentives policy and bring it back to the commissioners for adoption.

jbabcock@somdnews.com