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After shades pulled, Garrett Co. got to work

Garrett County may be best known for summers on Deep Creek Lake and winters on the slopes at Wisp Resort, but the National Association of Counties has highlighted Maryland’s westernmost bookend as more than a peaceful vacation spot.

There’s more to Garrett County than outdoor activities such as whitewater rafting. Its economic development has attracted the attention of the National Association of Counties.

A recent NACo report tells the story of Garrett County as a role model for economic development.

“It’s very much a pro-business climate,” said Mike Tumbarello, coordinator of the Garrett Information Enterprise Center, the county’s business incubator. He started there almost 18 months ago, after 23 years living in Howard County.

“We’re a best-kept secret,” he said, referring to the business activity in Garrett. “Naively, I was surprised when I got here. Now I’m not surprised anymore, seeing how the county operates.”

Small county, broad base

The NACo report, titled “Strategies to Bolster Economic Resilience,” focused on eight counties scattered across the United States, sharing anecdotes about their praiseworthy development strategies. Garrett was the smallest of the eight by population, with 29,900 as of 2012.

Much of Garrett’s success, the report said, stems from a local economic crisis. In 1996, 800 county residents were suddenly out of a job when Bausch and Lomb closed its Ray-Ban sunglasses plant in Oakland.

“When a total shutdown happens, that’s pretty devastating,” said Garrett County Commissioners Chair Robert Gatto. “Just the shock of working there and thinking you’re going to retire there was one of the biggest hurdles.”

Gatto didn’t live in the county at that time, but he lived nearby and was able to see the impact. The county unemployment rate rose to 18 percent in 1996, and remained high at 14 percent throughout 1997.

To recover from this upset, the county formulated a new economic strategy — it would build on local strengths and opportunities rather than try to attract another giant employer.

“Community leaders came together to develop an economic development strategic plan,” said Mike Koch, Garrett County economic development director. “That strategic planning process … was intending to ensure that that sort of concentration risk didn’t happen again.”

Since then, diversified economy is the name of the game.

Current areas of focus are the county’s emerging sectors, he said, which include tourism, special manufacturing, technology and value-added agriculture. The latter is a method of creating an attractive farming industry with better value through partnerships or unique offerings, such as organic goods.

“I’m bullish on agribusiness,” said Koch, who is also the owner of Firefly Farms in Accident, which produces goat cheese. With restaurants and stores looking to work with local food producers, he said, “local food is on fire.”

The county has seen results in the numbers, said Koch. Its unemployment rate as of October was 6.1 percent, lower than the statewide level of 6.7 percent that month. The number of farms increased 7 percent between 2002 and 2007, to more than 650, according to the most recent U.S. Census of Agriculture.

Every five years, the county refreshes its economic development plan, most recently in 2011. That plan included new considerations on the energy sector.

“The plan was broadened to allow for continued focus on the prophecy surrounding shale and shale gas, but to have an equal focus on other [energy] sectors,” said Koch, referring to wind, solar and water power.

The 2011 strategic plan listed Marcellus Shale and other energy resources in the region as both a strength and a potential threat to “one of the county’s largest assets, its natural beauty and environmental sustainability.”

Political weakness

That strategic plan, in the spirit of a full SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats), also lists the county’s weaknesses. At the top of that list is Maryland’s political makeup.

“Maryland’s business regulation environment is generally written for more urban areas by people with urban experiences,” the plan reads, explaining that this puts Garrett County at a competitive disadvantage to nearby counties in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, where state politics are more conducive to a rural economy.

“‘One Maryland’ is a great campaign slogan, but it is not an effective legislative strategy,” said Koch. “To a Western Maryland or rural ear, the ‘One Maryland’ policies sound insufficient.”

But the NACo study may help to shed some light on Garrett County, said Gatto, by making more Marylanders aware of its successes.

“It’s tough. We’re four hours away and we don’t have the media coverage and the television stations,” he said. “I’m sure there’s people that probably think we’re a bunch of hicks, [but] I don’t see that as a whole.”

For Tumbarello, moving to the county recently changed his perception.

“It’s not this homogeneous mountain climate,” he said. “It’s very much a heterogeneous mosaic, politically.”

He does acknowledge, however, that with a smaller population and more direct relationship between county officials and residents, reaching a consensus is more efficient. Gatto and Koch agreed.

“Our competitive advantage,” said Tumbarello, “is a simpler, more direct approach of getting things done.”