Study: Recession still has hold on city

Cumberland Times-News (MD), 2014-08-06


Aug. 06 -- CUMBERLAND -- Kyle Talente , vice president of RKG Associates , the firm currently conducting an economic study of Cumberland , told a group of local officials Tuesday that the city has not recovered from the economic downturn that took hold in 2008.

"We have not recovered from the recession; not a lot of places have," said Talente.

Updating city officials, Talente spoke at an interim meeting at City Hall to supply the findings and discoveries made so far. The $55,000 study, largely paid for by grants, is laying the groundwork for a strategic plan that will be presented in the fall.

An area of focus during the meeting was the amount of non-residential property available to interested developers. The total value of Cumberland's non-residential properties is $211.9 million . The top usages of the current stock of commercial properties are retail services, 56.5 percent; office space, 15.3; warehouse storage, 10.5; and restaurant and lodging, 7.5 percent.

Talente said that the city lacked suitable ground for developing.

"The reality is you don't have a large availability of dirt," said Talente.

Total vacant acres inside the city limits is 254.4 acres. "It's really not a lot and they are not in convenient or marketable areas," said Talente.

Statistics show that only 14 properties have been developed in the last 10 years. The largest development projects were the Western Maryland Regional Medical Center , The Fairfield Inn and Suites and CareFirst Blue Cross Blue Shield .

With the large stock of existing buildings, Talente said that redevelopment of those structures may be the best way to go.

"We have to think of ways to repurpose that property," said Talente. He said the disparity between the lack of open space and abundance of established buildings needed to be bridged. "We have to create programs that will allow us to fill that gap," said Talente.

The strategic plan derived from the current study is expected to call for targeting businesses between one and 20 employees, with the decision maker of the company likely to live in the community.

Among the top small business fields that could be targeted for the city were data processing and hosting, telemarketing, direct mail advertising, translation and transcription services, technical research, software publishing, video industry, telecommunications, financial investment and accounting and tax preparation.

Talente said although Maryland ranks 44th nationally in small business ownership, the problem can be worked on. One method he recommended was marketing to minorities, women and areas that are underserved. "You need to go for it three jobs at a time," said Talente.

Nicole Wagoner , city councilwoman, said that hotel/motel tax revenue should be used for a wider range of activities. "The hotel/motel tax should be used for economic development and not just tourism," said Wagoner.

Talente said the health care, finance and insurance fields had grown the most here in recent years.

The top areas of concern listed by employers are an availability of skilled labor, highway accessibility, the cost of labor and rating of the public school system. "You have skilled labor but not a lot of it. If someone needed 300 skilled workers, they would have to go outside the area and bring them in," said Talente.

He said the access to higher education through Allegany College of Maryland and Frostburg State University is a huge plus for the area. Talente stressed the importance for the accessibility of broadband connections and establishing a one-stop marketing entity for the area.

Talente said recreation and entertainment can be a great low-cost way to attract people. With the bike trails and C&O Canal here, he said a visible attraction such as a zip line near Canal Place that could be seen from the interstate could be very valuable.

"Areas like LaVale have become the retail service focus," said Talente.

Nick Scarpelli , city councilman, said that stopping the shrinking of the area's population has to be done before retail growth can thrive.

"Until we can do something about the negative growth issue in our community, we can't move forward. The important issue is job creation. National retailers won't come into our area when they see that there is negative growth. We've got to change the way we are doing business locally to create more employment opportunities," said Scarpelli.

City Administrator Jeff Rhodes said that the important decision will be when the study is complete and it comes time to act. "Will we take the plan and march with it or will the emotions take over and sidetrack it?" said Rhodes.

Talente said the city officials must also be ready to set aside money to spend on implementing the strategic plan.

Another interim meeting will be held before a completed strategic plan will be presented in the fall.

Greg Larry can be contacted at glarry@times-news.com .

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