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Frederick Co.’s Boyer is moving forward in tough times

With the objects of its doting less responsive during these days of economic malaise, Frederick County is following in the footsteps of many frustrated suitors — it’s going speed dating.

Laurie M. Boyer, the county’s economic development director, will travel to California this week with counterparts from across the country for two days of quick interviews with companies each hopes to bring back home.

“It’s a very compressed, two-day, speed-dating prospect call mission,” she said during a recent interview with The Daily Record. “Hopefully we’ll get a couple wins out of it.”

The trip is the first of its kind for Boyer, who has seen the recession and disappointing recovery sap resources from economic development agencies at a time when the job-creation mission they provide is at the top of many, if not all, county and state to-do lists.

“It’s definitely a challenging time, but I don’t think it’s an insurmountable time for us,” said Boyer, who is also president of the Maryland Economic Development Association.

The association turns 50 this year and is holding a series of events across the state this week to highlight its achievements and foster more partnerships among businesses and state and local agencies.

Boyer, 44, said the focus of “Economic Development Week” will be on showing the importance of economic development to the public and to the lawmakers who shape agency budgets every year as well.

“I think in this type of an economy, it’s even more important to have economic developers out there who are leading the charge for your state,” she said. “If we just sit down and say, ‘Well nobody is doing anything right now so we’re just going to stop doing what we do,’ then everything stagnates and nothing happens.”

Stagnation has re-emerged as a very real threat for the economy in recent months. The state’s unemployment rate dropped consistently through the first four months of the year — the 6.8 percent in May and June was the lowest since March 2009 — but has climbed through the summer. In August, 7.3 percent of Marylanders were without work.

With elected officials in Washington, D.C. deadlocked on both budget-cutting and economic stimulus legislation, businesses are putting moves and expansion plans on ice.

“The uncertainty we have right now in the economy is making everybody a little hesitant about pulling the trigger on new projects,” Boyer said. “Two years ago, everybody said by last year we’ll be out of the recession. That hasn’t quite panned out for us. Now people are saying it’s going to be another year, or three years, or 10 years.”

Economic development departments are cobbling together financing for small businesses that struggle with finding loans on the open market, Boyer said. Declining home values have left many without the collateral they need to secure bank loans.

Larger businesses have become more concerned with government regulations, she said, and seek help navigating permitting processes for projects that they would have, in better times, tackled on their own.

“That’s a big thing that we’re hearing from companies right now, that ‘I’ll grow and expand, but you have to help me through this process and make it easy for me to do everything that I need to do,’” Boyer said.

Her agency and others around the state have less to work with.

The economic development budget in Frederick County has been cut by 25 percent over four years and the staff, which once numbered nine, is down to seven. Boyer has less than $1 million to spend this year.

The state’s Department of Business and Economic Development has had its budget cut, too, from $118 million in fiscal 2008 to less than $95 million this year. Its staff has declined from 308 to 246 over that time.

“The challenge is that we’ve seen those numbers decrease,” said Boyer. “In the state of Virginia, they haven’t decreased at all and in fact, there have been some increases for economic development.”

Virginia, the most frequent economic and political foil for Maryland, now looms particularly large for Frederick County.

Bechtel Corp., the largest private employer in the county and third-largest overall, is likely to move 625 of its employees to Northern Virginia to give them better access to Washington and Dulles International Airport.

The state agreed Thursday to $9.5 million in taxpayer-funded subsidies to keep Bechtel’s 1,250 other employees in Frederick.

Boyer said no company has tried to use Virginia to leverage a better deal with Frederick, but added that site consultants have requested information, such as tax rates, from Frederick County to compare against those in Virginia jurisdictions.

To compete with their better-funded counterparts south of the Potomac, across the country and around the world, Boyer said economic development agencies in Maryland will have to choose carefully which industries they target and team up to tackle big projects.

The speed-dating trip to California is one such partnership. Unable to afford it on her own, Boyer will attend the event with representatives from Washington County and DBED.

She said the organizer has not told her how many companies she will meet with.

Green energy, cyber security and even computer gaming and software are areas of great potential growth for the state, Boyer said.

The state has set a goal that utilities get 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2022, and DBED has made cyber security a top priority to take advantage of the growth of intelligence services at Fort Meade.

“Twenty years ago, your parents would yell at you to get off your Nintendo or off your Atari, but that has developed not only into [college degrees] … but it’s widely used in the military and agencies that support the military in hands-free robotics and things like that,” said Boyer.

She said there exists the potential for stronger partnerships between the state’s agriculture industry and green energy firms that use crops for fuel.

“I think that’s what makes Maryland so strong,” Boyer said,” is that you have such diversity in such a small state.”

One of Frederick’s strengths of late has been its ability to become a little more like one of its neighbors.

“We refer to ourselves as the northern anchor of the I-270 technology corridor,” Boyer said. “Montgomery County certainly has the largest cluster of life sciences companies in the state, but Frederick County is right behind them.”

Anchored by Fort Detrick, the county’s largest employer with a payroll of 4,350, and a National Cancer Institute research center, Frederick now boasts 75 such life sciences companies.

“That’s the reaction I always get — wow,” she said.