By Guy Leonard, St. Mary's County Times
HOLLYWOOD, MD.—In St. Marys County jobs that stem from manufacturing offer the third highest wages but account for only two percent of all jobs here. As defense dollars dry up and the U.S. Navy signals its intent to stop building new aircraft and maintain the fleet it has, county officials and entrepreneurs want to ensure light manufacturing will be a new, key component of the future economy here.
A federally-funded economic development commission is currently working on a plan to diversify the countys economy and their aim is to provide actionable advice to make manufacturings increased presence here a viable one.
And while theres hope that the mindset among elected leaders and defense contractors has changed enough to see the importance of making the shift there appear to be more liabilities to increasing the manufacturing base than strengths.
At a March 18 meeting of local manufacturers with county government officials to discuss the situation, the entrepreneurs came up with more weaknesses than strengths in St. Marys.
They noted a dearth of a skilled workforce such as machinists and a lack of affordable space to stand up a manufacturing operation. Moreover, incentives to bring manufacturers here or even have residents start their own businesses making things are few.
Chris Kaselemis, the countys director of the Department of Economic Development, said boosting incentives would one of several things the county would have to do to make it more attractive.
You have to have the right environment for manufacturing, Kaselemis told The County Times. We have to send that signal.
Currently the only portion of the county code that pertains to manufacturing allows the Commissioners of St. Marys County to negate the personal property tax for manufacturers for a decade, it appears to be quite old, referencing steam-powered tools.
Robin Finnacom, Kaselemis deputy in economic development, said the countys economy had been traveling in one direction for so long dependence on the defense industry and services that it would be difficult to make the transition.
But, she said, with sequestrations cuts across the board to defense dollars, the reality check to the county made the new conversation possible.
Weve been professional service oriented for so long, Finnacom said. But manufacturing wages are truly family supporting.
Light manufacturing has another benefit, she said, since good wages could be had without having to spend four years and a considerable amount of money on college.
Despite the risks in trying to expand manufacturing there are some who have done it successfully for years to varying scales.
Wynn Briscoe, owner of Forever Eden Organics based in Great Mills, found her niche by creating skin care and bath products without scent or chemicals for those with allergic reactions to regular cosmetics.
She sits on the economic development commission and believes that diversifying the local economy with manufacturing jobs was one of the only ways to ensure the countys economic future.
I want to be able to put a factory here, Briscoe said. I want to put our community to work with an alternative to the base.
I think the shift has happened. Sequestration has brought that to life. We want to make it just as important a component as tourism.
Tourism is another approach the county has focused on in recent weeks by moving ahead with a master plan to boost that as another major money maker for the county, paying particular interest in the southern portion of the county which is replete with tourist spots but little infrastructure to promote more visits such as higher end restaurants and bed and breakfast spots.
Manufacturing and tourism could be the key components to successfully diversifying the local economy, Kaselemis said.
Were never going to be a manufacturing hub, but diversifying into tourism and manufacturing will help us, Kaselemis said.
Briscoe said finding a new future for St. Marys Countys economy is not an option. The days of near-limitless funding for new projects are dwindling and the county can no longer afford to be dependent on the defense industry.
I dont feel its sustainable, I dont believe its healthy, Briscoe said. If we dont change we cannot sustain.
Change is on the mind of Tom Sanders, owner of CTSi of Lexington Park which manufactures all kinds of items for the defense industry.
With full knowledge that the Navy is not planning on designing new aircraft the focus is now on maintaining the equipment it has.
His company is poised to make a shift, albeit a somewhat familiar one, to fit the times and the Navys needs, he said.
Weve got to find those markets that match our capabilities, Sanders said. I cant compete with manufacturers paying their workers minimum wage but I can go after that high-end work with the aerospace industry.
Its work adjacent to what we do.
In Clements, Michael Worrey, a deputy with the St. Marys County Sheriffs Office is busy pursuing his dream of manufacturing quality AR-15 style, civilian legal rifles. Hes pursuing his passion for firearms by building the licensed rifles in his garage, focusing on small, high quality batches of firearms.
Hes looking to create something that he can do in his retirement.
I love working with my hands, Worrey said. I turned a hobby into a second career.
But starting up here was difficult, he said, since federal taxes are high for his kind of work and the licensing portion is arduous.
Moreover, just getting a permit from the county to manufacture in his garage was challenging.
It took six months to get the light manufacturing permit to do this at my house, Worrey said. They [the staff at the Department of Land Use and Growth Management, were helpful.
Despite the risk, he believed there was a future for his business and light manufacturing in general.
I think theres definitely a future, St. Marys County has been very receptive to the gun business.
Kaselemis said that any industry that put county residents to work making things and selling them elsewhere was a step in the right direction.
When youre exporting a product youre importing cash, Kaselemis said. That adds wealth to your economy.