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Washington County targets economic development

While business is booming in some parts of Washington County, that is not necessarily the case in other areas. But now the Board of Commissioners is looking at ways to increase business in all areas of the county.

Washington County has had a Housing and Redevelopment Authority in place for several years. As it is framed, though, the HRA’s main focus has been on housing redevelopment. 

That could change. It might mean that the HRA gets some new parameters, or it might mean that another program may be in the works. At the very least, Washington County commissioners want to put more effort into aiding economic development county-wide.

For years, Deputy County Administrator Kevin Corbid said, the county has played a supporting role to economic development efforts in Washington County’s communities. But some of the smaller townships and cities within the county do not have the staff to actively pursue new businesses. That’s where county officials think they can help.

Washington County created an economic development plan that includes about 20 implementation items, Corbid said. Work has been done on many of those items, but more planning is coming for others.

One of the first things commissioners must do is decide what kind of structure they would like to have in place for handling economic development-related issues that come up in the county. Three proposals came forward through the economic development plan process, Corbid said.

One option is to develop a public/private partnership similar to the Economic Development Commission in St. Croix County, Wis. Another option is to increase the role of the HRA to become something more of a Community Development Agency-type arrangement, so as to meet needs of not only housing but also business development in the area. The final possibility – one not popular among commissioners – is to create a county employee-led economic development function. 

In discussion at a Feb. 17 Washington County Board of Commissioners workshop, commissioners backed the idea of either expanding the role of the HRA, or looking in to the creation of an Economic Development Commission or Economic Development Authority. While the names sound much the same, each board comes with its own state-mandated roles and regulations.  

“Counties that have a stronger role in economic development either organize themselves as an EDA or a CDA,” Corbid said. 

Although it’s too early to know what form any economic development program may take, it seems certain Washington County will need to hire someone to coordinate any such program.

At the workshop, Corbid told commissioners about a recent telephone call from an out-of-state developer who was interested in possibly bringing a business to Washington County. Corbid answered the developer’s questions, but told commissioners that would be an example of the kinds of things someone hired to coordinate a new economic development program would be doing. 

“We just don’t have that person to funnel out those types of calls,” Corbid said. 

Commissioners understand the need for both a new, structured program to handle economic development issues, and the need to create a position to run that program. 

“A central person. A contact person. That’s one of the things we need to get done,” Commissioner Ted Bearth said. 

County staff will work on a proposal over the coming months, Corbid said. He expects the topic to come back to commissioners over the summer months.