NORTH EAST — The Maryland Economic Development Association (MEDA) brought key leaders from Cecil, Kent and Queen Anne’s counties together with private sector representatives Thursday morning at Cecil College to discuss challenges and opportunities that await the Upper Shore region.

“We strongly believe that economic development changes lives,” MEDA Executive Director Pamela Ruff said in her opening remarks of what was billed as the Upper Shore Rural Economic Development Session. “Our members and those with whom they collaborate every day work tirelessly to create opportunities for our citizens inspire innovation for our businesses and our entire community.”

Sponsored by PNC Financial Services Group Inc., the five-hour session invited several guest speakers, including Heather Gramm, MEDA vice president and the assistant director of Frederick County Office of Economic Development. Three paneled discussions brought opportunities for those in attendance to ask questions about workforce development, opportunity zones and infrastructure.

The goal, Ruff explained, was to spark new ideas, provide updates about current efforts and foster connections with others who live and work in the region. The first two speakers of the day stressed that the three counties should rethink their economic challenges as one region rather separate jurisdictions.

Upper Shore Regional Council (USRC) Executive Director Susan O’Neill — who is familiar to locals after serving as economic development manager for Cecil County until last year — touted several new initiatives that the nonprofit launched this year, like the Upper Shore agriculture equity incentive fund. That $150,000 fund provides a match of $15,000 of hard costs for farmers who started in the last decade. The USRC also created a small business marketing program that focuses on raising the profiles of main street businesses and forged a pilot rural broadband program.

As the Upper Shore counties have grown, O’Neill shared that it was time for the USRC to look inward and develop a one to three-year strategic plan, with some assistance from Thomas Tuttle, of Annapolis-based consulting firm Tuttle Group International.

“I would encourage stakeholders to fully engage in a realistic conversation regarding the region and the organization, and come up with an objective — and what I would say not sugarcoating it — a strategy,” O’Neill said.

Tuttle stressed the importance of collaboration, noting that problems arise when “the impact of hard-working people are not aligned toward a common vision” that produces the best results. He proposed that the USRC steps up as a facilitator to improve the alignment of key players in government, business and education in a regional vision.

Tuttle and O’Neill conducted interviews with directors of other regional councils, Maryland Department of Commerce staff, and sent out surveys for other key stakeholders. Fourteen people completed the survey, and the top ranked economic development strategy as selected by participants was to accelerate the growth of existing businesses.

“When I saw that, it made my heart warm, because all the enlightened economic development professionals will say that’s the No. 1 job,” Tuttle said. “There are other jobs, but if you don’t do that, then you don’t have much hope about doing the other strategies.”

The second highest ranking response was improving business, government and education collaboration. The more Tuttle thought about this, the more he believed the USRC was best suited for the job, since individual counties were zeroed in on their own work. But for that relationship to flourish, he noted, communication needed to improve.

“One obstacle is the business culture on the Eastern Shore, which causes many to be reluctant to share information with a government representative about how their business operates and their needs for growth,” he said. “I really believe that by opening up and overcoming this reluctance to share information will take time and requires interviews that are experienced and established a rapport with senior business officials. The local economic agencies are not up to do this … they’re up to their eyeballs already.”

Much of the panel discussion focused on existing programs for workforce development within education and plans for infrastructure, such as roadways and broadband. But the topic that captured most of the discussion was a panel led by Cecil County Economic Director Chris Moyer on opportunity zones, a new federal tax incentive program that aims to spur development.

Developing in opportunity zones would allow developers and investors to move capital gains tax from other properties to invest in a piece of real estate in those areas for a tax deferral. If that investment stays in a qualified operating fund for a certain period of time, investors would see a reduction in tax liability. The entire post-acquisition gain is excluded from taxable income if held in a fund for 10 years or more. The deadline for how long the tax deferral is Dec. 31, 2026.

Cecil County has three opportunity zones: one that stretches from Charlestown north to Interstate 95 and includes all of Principio Business Park; another that covers downtown Elkton; and one that encompasses 600 acres in Elkton south of U.S. Route 40 along Route 213. Kent and Queen Anne’s County each have one zone, split by the Chester River. One that covers Chestertown in whole as well as the outskirts following Route 213 and Route 20, and the other that stretches west of the river and goes beyond U.S. Route 301.

Chris Rockey, Greater Maryland market manager in community development banking with PNC Bank; Sergi Kuzmenchuk, chief financial officer of Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development; and Andrew Fish, senior director of the Maryland Department of Commerce, shed some more light about opportunity zones, since many questions still lingered after the federal government issued more regulations in October.

On the state level, there’s still questions to be answered about the opportunity zones, but Fish said that in a nutshell, it all has to start with the investor.

“The business owners has to be there investing in equity or creating a facility inside an opportunity zone. That’s the kind of pre-work they need to do before they consider what programs can be layered on top of that,” he said.

But he did elaborate that the Upper Shore region is in a unique position compared to the rest of Maryland when it came to the job creation tax credit. Unlike other parts of the state where the minimum is 60 employees, in the three Upper Shore counties the threshold is only 10 jobs.

Since PNC Bank was among the first of 40 opportunity zone funds to crop up, Rockey was asked how he saw those funds being provided as a leader in the field. He said PNC’s real estate fund was looking at augmenting projects that could prove to be a boon to the community.

“What we can look at doing is identifying area transactions that are really aligned as part of a transformational strategy or comprehensive strategy for that community, where we can partner with a state that’s already putting public dollars in,” he said. “This isn’t ‘a project that isn’t good.’ This is a project that makes projects that are sort of teetering on the edge with cash flow work well, as well as providing capital over a 10-year period for that to stabilize.”

Kuzmenchuk added it was important to get ahead, and solving obstacles to business development was incredibly important on the local government side of things as well. He noted that opportunity zone fund assets must be invested within a six-month period of the fund’s tax year, which does require expedited planning.

“What you have to consider is how friendly is your environment for investments,” he said. “Sometimes, that’s as easy as streamlining permits. Would you like some of the real estate projects to be bogged down? Is there community support? … Getting ahead of a lot of issues is very important when these investors come in and the funds are set up, so they’re not dealing with delays.”

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