State's business secretary makes feds top priority

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Click here to enlarge this photo
Staff photo by JAY FRIESS
Christian Johansson speaks to St. Mary's County business leaders.

The main business of Maryland is government.

It has taken state government a long time to come to this conclusion, but Christian Johansson, Maryland's secretary of business and economic development, is now making the recruitment, support and commercialization of federal facilities one of his department's main goals.

Johansson said in an interview Friday that Maryland has four major employment sectors — federal government, education, medicine and tourism — which DBED refers to as "feds, eds, meds and beds." Of these, the "feds" is the likely the largest sector.

"It's probably the largest contributor to the Maryland economy," Johansson said. He pointed to St. Mary's County as a prime example. "Even as we're going through one of the worst recessions since, quite frankly, the Great Depression, St. Mary's County looks like the rest of the country before the recession."

The reason, Johansson said, is that St. Mary's is home to two of the state's 19 military installations. He said he sees opportunities to commercialize for the open market the technologies developed locally for military applications. Commercializing technologies would be a way for the county to diversify its economy away from its dependence on federal money, which comprised 85 percent of the local economy as of 2002.

"Maryland has not commercialized to its full potential," Johansson said.

After the interview, Johansson participated in a panel discussion with county business leaders at the J.T. Daugherty Conference Center in Lexington Park.

"As a state, we've never articulated that this is one of our core competitive advantages," Johansson said of the state's large federal presence. He said that the state is first in the union in per capita allocation of federal research and development money and second in total allocation.

Johansson outlined plans to capitalize on the state's federal presence. He wants his office to throw its support behind state funding efforts that would benefit education and infrastructure projects for federal installations. He called for a Congressional effort to collect and solidify the state's federal sector gains. He said his department would begin helping small businesses qualify to become vendors for federal contracts. And he called for a renewed effort to commercialize federally developed technologies.

Robert Schaller, director of economic and community development for St. Mary's County, moderated the discussion and took a minute to plug the local region's economic success story and strong outlook.

"Southern Maryland is by far the place to be right now," Schaller said. He pointed to the fact that St. Mary's has the youngest population in the state and the fastest growing workforce. "We are the mother county. We know that. But we are also No. 1 in other economic statistics."

One of the panels included representatives from the state's major "feds, eds, meds and beds" sectors. Dawn Rich, president of California-based military contractor Amelex, reminded the secretary that much of the region's contractor economy is service-based.

Rich said that she is chiefly concerned with providing affordable health care to her 150 employees and enticing the young ones to stay.

"We provide people, not widgets," Rich said.