WASHINGTON – President Bush’s proposed cuts to the Appalachian Regional Commission budget could cost three Maryland counties as much as $1 million for economic development, officials there fear.
The president’s budget would cut the ARC’s non-highway related economic development funds by 50 percent, from $66 million to $33 million. Maryland got $1.4 million in such funds this year for a number of projects in Garrett, Allegany and Washington counties, including sewage infrastructure and technology education.
“They’ve done a lot of very good things,” said Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, R- Frederick. “The ARC covers 13 states that really need this kind of help because we are really disadvantaged.”
But the Maryland counties could see their share cut by more than half, because the money is allocated by need.
“The better you’re doing the less federal (funds) you get,” said Leanne Mazer, director of the Tri-County Council for Western Maryland, which manages the program in this state.
Each county in the 13-state region gets ARC funding based on its economic status relative to the national average, and half the funding must go to “distressed” counties, Mazer said.
None of the Maryland counties is distressed. Allegany and Garrett are transitional counties, one step above distressed, and Washington County is competitive, the third-highest of the four levels. A county at the fourth level meets the national average, Mazer said.
She said it is impossible to predict the effects of the proposed cuts on Maryland, because with half the funding gone, ARC’s federal managers may come up with a “totally new formula.”
It will be two or three months before Congress appropriates funds for the program, said House Appropriations Committee spokesman John Scofield.
Since 1990, more than 120 projects in Western Maryland have been completed with ARC support, according to the state Department of Planning. The wide variety allows the programs to have a far-reaching effect.
“No one in Western Maryland hasn’t been touched by the ARC dollars,” Mazer said.
Each year, Maryland’s three western counties develop a regional plan and submit a prioritized list of projects to the Tri-County Council, which combines the lists and works its way down until it runs out of money, Mazer said.
Each project must support the regional plan. In the future, the region should focus on technology and communications, Mazer said.
“If Western Maryland is going to continue to advance, we still have a need for funding,” she said.
One recent project, a technology business incubator on the campus of Garrett Community College, had its grand opening in June 2002. Since then, around 10 companies have moved into office space at the Garrett Information Enterprise Center, employing nearly 30 employees.
Before the center opened, Jay Shoup ran his advertising, web and graphic design firm out of his bedroom. Moving into a real office building was a “drastic improvement,” he said.
The center includes rooms for meetings and training, as well as access to all of the Garrett College facilities, such as video conferencing, the library and computer labs.
“Since it is an incubator program, it enabled me to keep my overhead low and create more jobs,” he said.
After the move, Shoup hired two full-time employees and is looking for two more, he said.
Shoup appreciates the ability to have high-speed Internet access instead of the dial-up access he had at home.
“The best we ever got was 28.8,” he said. “Now we’re T1 and it thinks faster than we can.”
With just weeks until planners must begin deciding which projects to pursue, they are anxious to see whether the proposed budget cuts will leave funds for other such projects.
“In today’s fiscal climate you can’t be confident of anything, but we’re going to lobby very hard to reinstate the funding,” Bartlett said.