Ben Birge

A statistician by trade, Ben Birge spent his career in the governmental public policy with a focus on budget and program management as well as statistical analysis. In 2018, he started working for Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman as chief administrative officer.

When former president and CEO, Jerry Walker, left the Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp. (AAEDC) earlier this year, Birge stepped up to a new opportunity.

He shared his thoughts and observations with The Business Monthly after his first several months on the job during the COVID-19 pandemic.

How is the AAEDC working with small businesses now?

First and foremost, we constantly talk with businesses to find out what they need by sector, geography and demographics. We’ve already distributed $5 million in grants, which helped small businesses purchase whatever they needed, from signage to setting up their staffs for telework, to respond to the current market. Some were wondering if taking money was worth the risk since they would eventually have to pay it back, but this move took that aspect off the table.

How many were helped with the AAEDC’s Customer and Employee Protection (CEP)?

The program was a resounding success, helping more than 790 Anne Arundel County small businesses from June 3 through July 24. It was supported by Anne Arundel County’s allotment of CARES Act funding.

What is the progress of the town center projects in Annapolis?

There has been discussion of connecting infrastructure to the town center, perhaps via new walkways. There also may be a continuation from the developer’s side of negotiations with Wegman’s concerning the former USInternetworking (nee Nationwide Insurance) space on Riva Road. However, that has all but stopped because of COVID-19.

… Annapolis Junction …

The mixed-use project has been up and running. It offers a nice mix of office and residential with neighborhood retail, as well as easy road access to The National Business Park, which is just across Route 32. There could also be some data centers in the works there.

… Odenton …

We have engaged many times with the Maryland Department of Transportation concerning the home of the state’s second busiest MARC station. We’re now analyzing the impact of building the much-discussed parking garage, which would need to include more than 1,500 spaces. The state owns much of the property where the current parking lots are situated, so we’re also exploring opportunities for expansion with local landowners; we have most of the construction budget needed to proceed.

We’re very happy about the opening of Town Center Boulevard. One of our team members attends all of the Odenton Town Center (OTC) meetings. The advisory committee meets monthly and we’re working with them on a series of ideas, and the OTC Committee will be releasing its recommendations to the county executive soon.

… and Glen Burnie?

I have been wanting to see Glen Burnie Town Center turn into something big for 30 years. We are working with Councilmember Allison Pickard to acquire grants for improvements, but we need redevelopment, especially in the retail and residential categories. There’s way too much potential there for us to give up because it’s close to the center of the county’s population. We’re working on getting a farmer’s market opened there by next summer.

What’s the latest redevelopment plan for the former Southview Shopping Center in Brooklyn Park?

There’s Woodfall Greens, a fairly new multi-family housing project, that went up on the corner of Hammonds Lane. Lidl (the grocery store chain, which is soon to open in Glen Burnie’s Harundale Plaza) is thinking of expanding there.

What is the potential for Marley Station?

It’s a prime opportunity for mixed-use and we’re trying to determine the percentage for each sector, since it won’t require as much retail. Based on its location at the intersection of routes 2 and 100, Marley Station, with retail, residential and commercial elements, plus the bike trail that runs behind the mall, would be a huge draw.

The Westfield Annapolis Mall has lost three of its five anchor stores.

Similar opportunities are being considered for Westfield Annapolis, too. Mall officials are already meeting with our office and we’re trading information. They know something has to change, but it has to be done the right way before any sketch plans are released.

What stats about the county’s economy do you find eye catching?

Anne Arundel continues to trend downward in unemployment claims. We account for about 10 percent of the state’s population and initially we were at 10 percent of the unemployment claims – but we’ve knocked that number down to 5.5-6 percent. Our employment situation is improving faster than the statewide average. Also, we continue to see new businesses opening, often in the industrial and distribution sectors, including companies such as Paragon Bioservices, Whitebox and others.

What are AAEDC performance metrics?

We count what we can control. We can’t control job growth or the commercial tax base, but we can provide workforce training programs, finance programs and mentorship. Then we can see if the hoped-for job growth actually happens if a company we mentored is still in business a couple of years later.

Today, we’re analyzing the impact of our farmer’s markets, and our performance working with women and minority businesses. So, there are numerous ways we calculate performance. On that note, know that economic development is the Bermuda Triangle of measuring performance; agencies go down rabbit holes and want to talk about how they shape the economy – which they cannot do.

What are your thoughts about transportation?

First off, I’m happy about the expansion and the traffic flow on the updated section of Route 175, including the turn lanes and the signaling, as well as the redesign of the entrances at Fort Meade. They’re set back, so they pull traffic off Route 175 much more easily. We also feel an important component of our plan is forming a good partnership with Howard County, due to so much cross-pollination.

What new programs are you working on?

We are in the final phases of developing a minority business tool box because we know they have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic. We want to be seen as an organization that helps not only large businesses, but small business that are struggling to get a bank loan. That’s where we spend most of our time.

What’s the hardest aspect of your job?

Hearing from struggling citizens. It’s gut wrenching.

What’s the best thing about it thus far?

I inherited the best team anywhere. A number of people told me coming in that it was the best team in the county, but you hear that a lot from people. This turned out to be the case. I haven’t been around a more productive and dedicated team anywhere. The fact that they also get along so well is icing on the cake.

By Mark R. Smith | Senior Writer | The Business Monthly | November 2020