The early weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak were terrifying for many Maryland businesses: amid closures, layoffs and emergency restriction, their futures suddenly looked increasingly uncertain. They had numerous questions and needed help finding answers.
But no matter what they needed, many knew they could turn to the Maryland Department of Commerce’s team of 12 regional experts, each of whom is a Senior Business Development Representative focusing on a different geographic area of the state.
“There was panic and desperation. Those were tough phone calls,” said Lori Ratzburg, Commerce’s Anne Arundel County representative. “But we were listening so we could understand what was taking place and then help figure out solutions.”
Soon, Ratzburg and her colleagues could direct the businesses to various emergency relief programs offered by Maryland agencies such as the Departments of Commerce or Labor, as well as the federal government. But a lot of time in those initial days was just spent listening, she said.
“I had many people say to me ‘I can’t believe you answered the phone,” Ratzburg said. “I would sometimes spend 30 minutes listening to people’s stories. It was heartbreaking.”
The “regional reps,” as they’re known at Commerce, are often the first point of contact between a business and the state government. When a company is thinking of making a change, such as expanding, downsizing, or launching a new initiative, or has a question about pretty much anything, they can talk to their Commerce regional rep to find out what resources might be available to help them.
“I think of myself as a generalist. I know a little bit about almost anything,” said Andrew Sargent, Commerce’s Western Maryland representative. “But if I don’t know the answer, I know where to find a specialist. We can bring the appropriate parties together to take action.”
Often those parties are experts from numerous other state agencies, including the Department of Housing and Community Development, the State Highway Administration and the Maryland Energy Administration. Different agencies may have different programs or tax credits that can assist a business, or may simply be able to offer guidance and expertise.
“There could be problems with transportation for a business’s workforce, so we can contact the Maryland Department of Transportation to see if they can assist,” said Ratzburg. “We know the appropriate people.”
The reps also help make business-to-business connections, such as when manufacturers need to find new suppliers.
Formalizing the cooperative relationship between Commerce’s regional reps and their counterparts at other agencies was a key initiative of Maryland Commerce Secretary Kelly M. Schulz when she joined the department in 2019.
“Economic development has always been the key mission of the Department of Commerce, but we recognized the vital role that other state agencies play in meeting the needs of our business community,” Schulz said. “The Customer Service Initiative launched by Governor Larry Hogan in 2016 pushed all agencies to work more closely together to address the needs of Marylanders. We first launched a collaboration among agency leadership called the Commerce Subcabinet, which meets regularly. Now we’re applying that same principle to our operatives in the field with the Regional Resources Teams.”
While there used to be a sort of informal network of state agency representatives in Western Maryland, now there’s a true team, Sargent said.
“There’s an understanding among us that we can call each other any time, on any issue,” Sargent said. “We have monthly calls, and we’ve developed a camaraderie and rapport – that’s the best way to build a team.”
Those teams are then better positioned to collaborate on broader regional efforts, such as transitioning from extraction-based energy sources like coal to renewable energy sources in Western Maryland, or fostering a hub for unmanned aerial vehicle development in Southern Maryland. These efforts require input from a range of state and local partners to tackle issues such as infrastructure improvements and workforce development.
The regional representatives are also in regular contact with local business groups, trade groups, chambers of commerce, the local economic development organizations in each jurisdiction, said Elizabeth Carven, Commerce’s Senior Director, Regional Growth & Retention.
But the key to their work often comes down to simple face-to-face contact with the businesses in their territories, Ratzburg said.
Usually this is done in person, but video calls have become the norm during the pandemic.
“Companies need a comfort level with you, and people are often uncomfortable when they hear you’re from the government,” Ratzburg said. “But in addition to our work visits, we see them at community events, we see them on our personal errands–it’s continuous relationship building. It takes years to do that.”
One business owner Ratzburg has built a solid relationship with reached out during the pandemic, distraught because she’d had to lay off her own daughter. Ratzburg guided her to the unemployment system that helped get the daughter assistance to cover back pay.
“If the owner didn’t know I was there to reach out to, she might not have gotten that valuable assistance,” Ratzburg said.
While much has changed about our lives since the onset of the pandemic, Commerce’s overall mission has not, Schulz said.
”Instead of working to help businesses expand or trying to attract new companies to our state, our business reps are now just trying to sustain the businesses in their areas,” Schulz said. “Our reps are showing great resilience in responding to the changing needs of our customers, and this is helping them make sure the members of our business community know they’re not alone. We’re still here to help.”
Maryland Department of Commerce Regional Specialists
Anne Arundel County
Calvert, Charles & St Mary’s Counties
Frederick & Carroll Counties
Garrett, Allegany & Washington Counties
Harford & Cecil Counties
Prince George’s County
Queen Anne’s, Talbot, Caroline & Kent Counties
Wicomico, Worcester, Somerset & Dorchester Counties
This article is featured in the 2020 edition of The Daily Record’s Expanding Opportunities Resource Guide for Small, Minority and Women Businesses. Published in conjunction with the Governor’s Office of Small, Minority & Women Business Affairs, Expanding Opportunities explores diversity, entrepreneurship and innovation in Maryland’s small business community. Read more from Expanding Opportunities on this website or read the digital edition.