Economic leader reveals changes in wooing businesses to Washington County

These days, new business contacts usually begin anonymously with the Internet, according to Kassie Lewis, director of the Washington County Department of Business Development.

“They are looking at us before we have any idea — any idea at all — that they are looking,” Lewis said of business prospects seeking locations for new facilities.

When companies do make contact, “they usually come to us through a consultant. … Now everything is very confidential,” she said.

Lewis provided a review of the year in economic development Wednesday morning at an Eggs and Issues breakfast event sponsored by the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce at Applause Caterers at Academy Theatre in Hagerstown.

Rather than run through a litany of numbers, Lewis opted to tell stories about how economic development contacts work, the importance of partnering with area governmental and nonprofit leaders, and the critical role of existing businesses.

For example, she told a story about showing a building to out-of-county business leaders looking for new space. They asked why the seller was moving, and that person said he had found success here and was relocating to larger quarters.

“You can’t pay for that advertising,” Lewis said. “You can’t pay for that kind of endorsement.”

When looking for new locations, businesses typically have a list of requirements. Economic development leaders show spaces that meet “the letter of the law” for those needs, she said.

But she compared the process to buying a home — people can change their minds as they shop around.

“Often those requirements can change on the spot. … As you’re looking, your requirements change,” she said.

Sometimes those requirements can eliminate communities from the start. For example, Procter & Gamble wanted a site of 500 contiguous acres for its new manufacturing facility, she said.

“There is a not a 500-acre parcel in the entire state of Maryland,” Lewis said.

The company is building that new plant near Martinsburg, W.Va., off Interstate 81.

Lewis said some prime business land is owned by developers who intend to build a structure to suit a tenant’s need, then lease the building to that organization.

“We don’t have a lot of vacant buildings for businesses,” she said.

But Lewis said that economic development means more than attracting new businesses. One of the few figures she highlighted pointed to the importance of existing businesses.

She said an average of 87 percent of new jobs and capital investments come from the existing businesses in a community.

“That is true here,” she said.

As a result, the department provides existing businesses with services, such as a manufacturer’s roundtable and a group that focuses on lean manufacturing techniques, among others.

When asked about how the department advertises the county, Lewis said leaders aim at specific targets to make the best use of their resources.

“We don’t do a shotgun approach,” she said. “We don’t want to be shooting in the dark.”