This fall, some 21,000 visitors traveled to Cecil County’s Fair Hill community to watch the first Maryland 5 Star, a three-day equestrian competition that attracts the finest horses and riders in the world.
At about the same time, Northrop Grumman broke ground on a 50,000-square-foot building in Elkton that will focus on hypersonics and advanced weaponry and bring 250 new advanced science jobs to the county.
Meanwhile, Nanomedicine Inc., a North East-based medical high-tech company, was renovating an unused building in Elkton to accommodate plans to expand its production of nanotechnology medications for neurodegenerative diseases – and planning to add an additional 300,000 square feet of office space in the future.
These developments fit in perfectly with the ambitions of leaders in Cecil County, a small, largely rural county of about 100,000 residents tucked in the northeast corner of Maryland. Their goal: to give their county an economic boost and a new reputation as a destination county with attractive amenities, first-rate infrastructure and an appealing mix of jobs – including high-tech jobs.
“We are a growing county, and we’re proud of that, excited to see positive growth in Cecil County,” said County Executive Danielle Hornberger, elected to that office in November 2020.
“We’re looking to be the leading job creator in the state of Maryland,” said Steve Overbay, director of administration and a former director of economic development in the county. “And I think we’ve got the pieces in place to do that. … We have folks excited about the activity, to say the least. … It seems like we have ribbon-cuttings each week and groundbreakings every other.”
Cecil County Datastory, a website set up by the Upper Shore Regional Council, paints a glowing picture of Cecil’s potential and includes an assortment of pertinent facts and figures. Among them:
- Nine million people live with an 8-hour drive from the county and three metropolitan areas are within a 90-minute drive: Wilmington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
- The county draws commuters from three states, Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania.
- Three interchanges off of Interstate 95 serve Cecil County, and a fourth is in the works.
- Plenty of developable land is available, as are a variety of incentives for businesses.
The site also boasts of the “immense natural beauty” of the county, much of which borders on the Chesapeake Bay and the Susquehanna River.
Jeff Newman, president and CEO of 5 Star Maryland, said the state’s northeasternmost county will get a huge boost from the annual event.
“It’s an enormous opportunity to get visibility,” Newman said. The 5 Star is a premier equestrian event, he said. There are only seven in the world, and Cecil County’s is one of only two in this country. (The second is in Kentucky.)
“People travel from all over the world to see these,” he said. Attendance at last year’s inaugural event was held down because of the pandemic, but other 5 Star events routinely draw as many as 80,000 visitors, Newman said.
The state hopes to build up attendance gradually, adding about 10,000 per year.
The event will get a boost, Newman said, from nearby development in the works. This year, Great Wolf Resorts, which operates a chain of indoor water parks, broke ground on a new 700-room Great Wolf Lodge in Perryville, just off of I-95. The lodge is due to open in 2023 and eventually is expected to attract 500,000 visitors a year.
Perryville is also home to the Hollywood Casino, the 75,000-square-foot gambling emporium. The casino was taken over by Penn National Gaming earlier this year, and the company is expanding its offerings there to take advantage of the state’s recent legalization of sports wagering.
With these developments and others, Overbay said, the Perryville area alone “is creating a true destination within Cecil County.”
Tourism is only one aspect of Cecil’s drive for growth. Another key component is jobs – especially high-tech jobs.
The state does not typically mention Cecil County when it comes to promoting hubs for those kinds of jobs, focusing instead on the IT and cybersecurity companies in Columbia, Baltimore and Fort Meade, and biotech jobs in Montgomery, Prince George’s and Frederick counties.
However, Cecil County also is nurturing these jobs and leaders have big ambitions.
“We’re starting to see a pivot here in Cecil County into science and tech jobs, advanced manufacturing jobs,” Overbay said. “Our goal is to be the leading job generator in the state of Maryland, and we think we are absolutely poised to do so.”
Exhibit A in the county’s drive for these jobs is Clene Nanomedicine, the Elkton biopharmaceutical company that develops of unique therapeutic treatments for neurodegenerative diseases and has big plans for expanding.
The company’s chief science officer, Mark Mortenson, is as bullish on Cecil County as any county official, and has effusive praise for his company’s location and amenities.
“If you’re a decent tech manufacturing company, you’ll have no problem pulling an employee base from surrounding jurisdictions,” he said. “And there’s pretty smart people here in Cecil County.”
Mortenson has visions of a collection of hi-tech businesses in the county – feeding off of each other, much as competing car dealers congregate side-by-side along busy roads to their mutual benefit.
“I think we could be a very strong anchor for a very sophisticated bio-tech base,” Mortenson said. “It makes imminent sense, and that’s why we’re doing it. … There’s great space and an infrastructure that wasn’t here 10 years ago.”
Tourist attractions and high-tech jobs notwithstanding, Cecil County has long been known as a farming community. And agriculture is an industry that often gets neglected and hurt when a local economy booms – farmland eaten up by other development.
“There will always be some concern in the agricultural community, especially as we try to continue to find ways to preserve agriculture in Maryland,” said Ryan Zimmerman, regional field manager for the Maryland Farm Bureau in a region that includes Cecil County.
“We have to collaborate with local jurisdictions and the state to find ways to make sure agriculture remains at the forefront of these discussions when we talk about new housing developments, new economic jobs, and so on.”
He added, however, that the county has done “a wonderful job of keeping agriculture in mind. …. I think doing everything they can to find says to make sure agriculture stays viable and profitable. They’re always willing to invite us to table when they’re discussing new proposals.”
County Executive Hornberger promised that cooperation will continue, and steps are being taken to keep agricultural concerns in mind.
Last year, for example, the county held its first agricultural symposium on agriculture that attracted some 125 attendees to talk about farming and its impact and future in Cecil County.
The county also has a work group reviewing the county’s comprehensive plan to take what Hornberger called “an extra close look at agriculture and supporting that industry.”
“It all circles back to that quality of life,” she said. “We want to be thoughtful about the growth and insure that our community prospers and we retain our agricultural heritage.”