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State starts business-friendly push

CAMBRIDGE — State economic development officials urged local leaders on Wednesday to identify large projects that could be eligible for expedited state review and small businesses that need a boost from Maryland’s newest financing program.

Both initiatives are central to Gov. Martin O’Malley’s economic agenda — a multi-pronged approach to easing the burden of state regulations and a venture capital program that could soon be filled with more than $70 million.

They are designed to speed hiring in the construction industry and translate the research done in the state into commercial ventures.

Ursula Powidzski, director of business development for the Department of Business and Economic Development, said those efforts are particularly important now, as the federal government will soon cut spending.

“I think that Maryland is at a crossroads,” she said at the Maryland Municipal League conference at the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Golf Resort, Spa and Marina. “We have been very fortunately linked to the federal government for a long time. A lot of good things have come our way in terms of job growth because of that link. But now things are changing.”

O’Malley signed an executive order Oct. 17 that began a 60-day review of all state regulations to identify those that are duplicative, outdated or overly burdensome. His administration has also created the FastTrack program that will give large development projects streamlined and contemporaneous state reviews.

Both appeared to be well received by local leaders Wednesday, even by those dubious the permit review’s ability to lead to real change.

Daniel J. Mears, town manager of La Plata, said the town’s review of projects is often completed before the state finishes its work.

“Anytime you can make it more efficient, it’s a good thing,” he said.

Wayne Winkler, a La Plata councilman, said “Maryland is really unfriendly to business.”

The business climate issue is especially relevant to the Charles County town, which is just a short drive down Route 301 from Virginia, Maryland’s most-frequent economic foil.

Winkler said an equipment rental and lumber business he co-owns is struggling with the weak economy and its personal property tax obligation, and will likely go out of business this year.

Also a real estate agent, Winkler complained a standard residential sale contract has ballooned to 42 pages.

“You get so lost in the regulations,” he said. “I would move my business to Virginia, I’m only 13 miles away, but I’m afraid of heights and I don’t want to cross the Potomac River bridge.”

Powidzski and others from DBED and the governor’s office also pushed local officials to identify businesses that could receive money from the department’s financing programs, including the recently approved InvestMaryland venture fund.

The fund is designed to use at least $70 million in taxpayer dollars to invest in small, high-tech businesses. The first investments could start flowing as soon as the summer.

“Technology drives the Maryland economy. Arguably, it’s starting to drive the world economy, no matter where you are,” Powidzski said.

She said DBED is focused most on companies that have the capability to reach outside of Maryland and bring money into the state’s economy from other states and even other countries.

It was a tough sell for many commissioners, council members and mayors who govern Main Streets full of dry cleaners, restaurants and shops that have inherently local markets.

“I think you need to spend as much time trying to save the small businesses as you do trying to attract the high-tech businesses,” Winkler said.