Richard Griffin wears two hats: he’s best known as the director of economic development for the City of Frederick, a role in which he’s served for 23 years. As the director in the city as opposed to Frederick County, he oversees four city departments, including economic development, downtown parking, the municipal airport and the Weinberg Center for the Arts.
The hat he wears at his other engagement, as president of the Maryland Economic Development Association, gives him a more vast perspective. In that role, he and his colleagues work to create a deeper understanding of just what economic development is ― beyond the tax incentives or real estate transactions ― and what it accomplishes.
MEDA’s goal is to amplify that narrative by demonstrating how economic development inspires innovation, creates opportunities and enhances communities, and thus supports the association’s marketing tagline: “It’s about transforming lives.”
What do you see as the main economic generator in Baltimore-Washington Corridor counties?
We are fortunate to have Fort Meade and its $26.8 billion economic impact ― according to the state of Maryland ― located right in the center of the state, with the National Security Agency, the Defense Information Systems Agency, the U.S. CyberCommand and the many other government agencies on post.
The jobs created at Fort Meade are critical to economic development efforts not only in the Corridor but literally in every county in Maryland, since we have contractors across the state that often do business with the federal government, be it on-site and/or remotely from sensitive compartmented information facility (commonly called SCIF) locations.
How is the state education system working with economic development concerns to ensure that government, as well as private, employers have workers?
Among the most critical elements of economic development is having workers available for key industries. With unemployment under two percent in the state, that’s a top issue. So the state has focused on several different areas, such as The Blueprint for Education for K-12, customized training programs at community colleges, American Job Centers and workforce training centers across the state. They’re all focused on creating pipelines for workers for future jobs.
What other big challenges are being addressed?
The other two major issues that are affecting economic development efforts statewide are housing and transportation. Workforce housing is in great demand because in order to have the labor force we need in each community, the workers need to have an affordable place to live.
That means delivering innovative and unique solutions to those communities, be it via building more single-family homes, multiunit housing or even tiny homes, as well as accessory dwelling units.
Transportation is the other critical issue as we enhance our options in getting workers to and from work. This is all part of the huge effort to get housing and jobs closer together via mixed-use development, which enables heightened use of transportation hubs.
How many members does MEDA have?
We have 510 members who are located across the state, which gives us the opportunity to hear from economic development professionals about their needs and challenges, as well as their opportunities. As noted, workforce, housing and transportation are the most common topics we hear about, but there are many more.
Therefore, we set up events with members so we can share information. For instance, at the recent MEDA fall conference, we had a session about the state’s thriving manufacturing industry. We work to spur innovation in the state and this is one example of how we try to promote those efforts so people can take them back to their communities and, hopefully, implement them.
What’s a recent success story?
We returned from what I feel was our most successful annual conference last April in Cambridge. The theme concerned harnessing education for economic development and how educational institutions are not only educating hundreds and thousands of students, but driving economic development in their communities via employment, serving students and local residents, using tech transfer programs to commercialize new discoveries, driving population increases, etc.
What else happened at the conference?
We also had keynote addresses at the conference from David Wilson, president of Morgan State University, and Gov. Wes Moore. They talked about the value of good-paying jobs including family-supporting wages, health insurance, housing, education and human dignity; as well as many state secretaries, notably Secretary of Labor Portia Wu. She’s a former Microsoft executive who has been pushing workforce programs forward in Maryland. She has a history of doing just that across the country and appreciates how economic development efforts support building that pipeline.
How does Maryland rate nationally in terms of economic development efforts?
Clearly Maryland, in certain areas such as educational attainment, entrepreneurial activity and technology support, ranks among the top states in the country. With the Port of Baltimore, BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, Fort Meade and more than 60 federal agencies in Maryland, many businesses choose Maryland to be close to the resources provided by those organizations.
Also, Maryland’s workforce is tops. In 2021, Maryland’s workforce ranked second in the country for its high percentage of professional and technical workers (30.2%). Moreover, in 2021, Maryland had the fifth-highest concentration of doctoral scientists and engineers in the nation.
How does BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport rate nationally in terms of economic impact?
It’s huge. It’s the top performing airport in the region over Dulles International Airport, in Northern Virginia, and Ronald Reagan National Airport, in Washington, D.C. Clearly, the state gets enormous benefits out of BWI Marshall, which produced $10 billion in economic impact and is the source of 106,000 jobs that range from airline workers to mechanics to construction, to name but a few.
In a similar fashion to Fort Meade, the entire state benefits from BWI Marshall because many new businesses have put down stakes in the area because we can offer a gateway to the world. And that’s a benefit that not every state has.
What’s the impact of general aviation airports in the state?
The best example I can offer is our Frederick Municipal Airport. It’s the second busiest airport in the state and it’s the designated receiver airport for BWI Marshall. It generated more than 1,100 jobs and more than $100 million in business revenue per the Maryland Aviation Administration in 2018. Many corporate users come in and out every day.
Do you think the state’s general aviation airports are used to their full potential?
The Maryland Aviation Administration and host communities like Frederick do a terrific job promoting the value of general aviation including industry investment, jobs, tax base and more. Equally important is the role that such airports play in the national system as designated reliever airports for larger commercial airports, like BWI Marshall.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the field during the past five years?
Clearly, the focus on diversity, inclusion and equity is a tremendous shift in the field. Maryland is the most diverse state on the East Coast and Baltimore is one of the nation’s most diverse cities, which gives us an immense advantage for recruiting top corporations that value diversity in their own organizations.
In addition, Maryland has been ranked one of the best states not only for entrepreneurism and for minority entrepreneurs, in part because of the work by TEDCO and by incubators/accelerators across the state, such as the Frederick Innovative Technology Center Inc. This focus on the idea of equality has forced economic developers across the state to sharpen their pencils and make sure that everyone has access to opportunities.