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Garrett County names top economic official

Michael Koch loves Garrett County — the scenic mountains, the small-town charm, the booming agriculture and the tourism.

Michael Koch’s Firefly Farms Creamery & Market has won 59 awards for its cheeses.

And for the newly appointed director of the county’s Department of Economic Development, the region’s most endearing qualities are integral to his vision for sustained economic growth.

“You start by playing to your strong suits,” Koch said. “I think we have enormous assets in agribusiness, and those assets should be grown.”

On Thursday, Garrett County announced that Koch would replace former director James Hinebaugh, who retired in September after 17 years in the position.

“The county is at a real pivot point,” Koch said in an interview after the appointment was announced. “Jim’s tenure was really successful in laying necessary groundwork and infrastructure, and I think now we are well-positioned to be a more aggressive marketing presence, to proactively turn that up and attract a diverse set of new businesses to the county, as well as grow the diverse businesses that exist here already. So I’m bullish. I’m absolutely bullish.”

Koch brings more than two decades of business experience to the position, most recently as co-owner of FireFly Farms Creamery & Market, which has been making cheese in Accident for 10 years.

“Economic development is essentially entrepreneurial, creative, hard-driving activity,” Koch said. “And I think the experience that any entrepreneur gets from creating something from nothing is helpful in [that kind of] environment.”

Koch also spent 22 years in the corporate finance world at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which he said will help guide him in his new position.

“I know how to handle myself in a boardroom,” he said. “I know how to deal with larger companies that are interested in Garrett County as a new place of business.”

That multi-faceted experience will be a huge advantage in this position, said County Administrator Monty Pagenhardt, who headed the committee of seven business and community leaders that selected Koch.

“It was the balance that was appealing,” Pagenhardt said. “He had experience on a larger scale in the banking industry, and he had his own business that’s very successful.”

The westernmost county in Maryland, Garrett was home to just more than 30,000 residents as of the 2010 U.S. Census. The Department of Economic Development is budgeted at $1.8 million for fiscal 2013; the budget for the entire county government is $75 million.

Andrea Cedro, the director of sales at FireFly, said she’s known Koch for almost 10 years and added that he would make an ideal director of economic development.

“He’s just so smart, so energetic and has really, really great ideas,” she said. “He’s such a wonderful business mind. He sees the potential in the agricultural community and just in the interests that people have in visiting Garrett County, as far as tourism. And he’s got a great way of tying things together and connecting the dots.”

In addition to providing crucial perspective and hands-on business knowledge, Koch’s cheese-making forays illuminated the importance of farming and other agricultural ventures, both in Garrett County and nationwide, he said.

“Through FireFly, I’ve become plugged into the food movement — and I don’t use those words lightly — that is occurring in this country as agriculture re-localizes.”

Tourism is still the area’s most important industry, with Deep Creek Lake the primary catalyst, Pagenhardt said. According to the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, Wisp Resort is the county’s fifth-largest employer year-round, with 200 employees — a number that swells by several hundred during ski season.

“There’s a great deal of opportunity that the county has in its future,” Koch said. “And I love the county and its residents. I chose to start my business here and buy a home here for some of those reasons.”

The Rockville native also has a home in Washington with his partner, Pablo Solanet. After graduating from The College of William and Mary in 1984, he taught high school English at a public school in Norfolk, Va., for one year and at a private middle school in Oklahoma City for three more.

“I think my four years in front of kids was one of the most formative pieces of my later career,” he said. “I used to sit and mull that if you can hold the attention of a group of 12-year-olds, you are well-suited to enter the boardroom.”

Koch’s communication skills made an impression on Pagenhardt, who said he and others felt Koch would be able to “speak to anybody and market the county in a very proactive and positive way.”

“You could send him down to Annapolis and he’d present himself and make his case so well … they probably wouldn’t believe it when we said, ‘Yeah, he’s from Garrett County’ — being that we’re up here in the mountains, you know,” Pagenhardt said with a chuckle.

Koch, 51, said he kept working in the corporate world until August 2011 while simultaneously running the cheese shop.

“I’m too young to retire,” he said. “So, I had in the back of my mind, you know, what would be next for my professional career? Then this opportunity came along, and it just seemed perfect.”

Koch said he anticipates beginning his new role in mid-January. Though he’ll no longer be involved in the day-to-day operations at FireFly, he said he’ll stay on in a managerial role.

But, he said, he won’t be totally removed from the cheese business in his daily life.

“There will be no shortage of cheese in my office,” he said, laughing. “That’s for sure.”