Economic Development Director Keasha Haythe: It’s not easy

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Dorchester Banner/Paul Clipper
Keasha Haythe: “I have a heart for Dorchester County.”

Talking to Dorchester County’s outgoing ED Director

After eight years as the Economic Development Director in Dorchester County, Keasha Haythe has resigned her position as of today. She served notice to the County Council a month ago, and will be spending her immediate future developing a new consulting company while tending to her duties as President of Maryland Economic Development Association and serving on the Maryland Department of Commerce P3 Marketing Board.

Ms. Haythe began her Dorchester County career in November 2008, when she was hired by Bradly Broadwell, EDD director at the time, for the position of Business Attraction and Expansion Manager in Dorchester County. She was responsible for attracting new businesses, as well as managing the Tech Park and the proposed Incubator facility projects, which existed only on paper in 2008.

Her experience prior to that had been gained in Queen Anne’s County. “I had done economic development for six years in Queen Anne’s,” said Ms. Haythe. “I started out as an office assistant to the Business Development Manager, I was intrigued and wanted to learn more about economic development.” During that period she was studying economic development through the International Economic Development Council and became a certified economic developer in the field.

Within six months, Mr. Broadwell had moved on to a new job in North Carolina, and Keasha applied for the position of Director, and was hired as such by the County Council. “At that time, we were scheduled to have the Maryland Economic Development Association here in Dorchester for their annual conference at the Hyatt,” said Ms. Haythe, “I was in the middle of working with them, while waiting for my flight returning from a conference, I got the news that I had been promoted as the Director and County Manager Jane Baynard was working on a press release and wanted a quote from me.”

In economic development, the name of the game is to attract and expand new business to a region, in whatever way is possible. This includes trying to bring storefronts back to life, fill closed warehouses, and create jobs inside of empty factories. Without a doubt, especially in 2008-2009, there was plenty of work to do in the county; but the signature project on the table was the new concept for the Dorchester Regional Tech Park and the proposed incubator facility. Immediately upon accepting the director’s position, Ms. Haythe was handed the keys to the county’s newest, biggest project.

“The priority was to find funding for the project, to solidify partnerships and make the project happen,” she said. “We had to work closely with the City of Cambridge and Mid-Shore Regional Council and other agencies to identify funding. We applied for a grant through the U.S. Department of Commerce, Economic Development Administration. We were awarded one of highest grant awards through the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act, which was 3 million dollars. With that 3 million dollars we were able to have the water and sewer and fiber infrastructure run down Bucktown Road to accommodate the park.

“It was a huge undertaking, a lot of project management. Bob Tenanty, who was an engineer with public works and worked with the county, has since retired, but he was instrumental in the project, as well as County Manager Jane Baynard at that time. They had the history. It was my understanding the Tech Park was proposed, in the ‘90s. But they were not able to make it happen. The infrastructure was completed in 2012.”

That’s a long time to let a major project simmer, and we asked why it might have taken so long.

“I believe it was the lack of coming together and working together,” Ms. Haythe told us. “I think that was something the players were not quite familiar with. Other counties and regions throughout the world are familiar and play well together in the sand box; However, some don’t. In this case the lack of unity, coming together and compromising to say this is going to be for the good of the entire community later. We’re all going to reap the benefits to this park later.” To date, things are changing and key leaders are starting to work better together.

We asked the question that had been asked many times — how much later? How much time does it take to fully build an industrial park?

“Typically, full build-out of a park like this, takes about 20+ years,” she said. “Look at the example in Queen Anne’s County. All of the county owned lots in that park have been sold, and the last county-owned lot was sold in 2002.”

The fact that the new Eastern Shore Innovation Center in the Tech Park, which celebrated its grand opening last week, finished on time and under budget, and in one month is tenanted to 60 percent of its capacity is well covered recently. Ms. Haythe considers it a shining success in her Dorchester County career, and we asked her about other successes she may be proud of.

“Really, we’ve had small successes throughout my career,” she said. “Under my leadership, we were able to partner with Hurlock and the State of Maryland to work with Amick Farms to purchase the Allen Family Foods facility. That certainly was an accomplishment, because we didn’t lose over 800 jobs in Dorchester.

“When I came on board in 2008 and took over as director in 2009, the unemployment rate was well over 12 percent. The county had experienced a huge loss of jobs and companies. Certainly, we have not been able to gain all of those jobs back, but a large percentage of the community is working. They may not all be working within the county, but they are working somewhere within the region and are able to provide for their families. Currently, our unemployment rate is at about 7.3 percent.

From the outside, when the Economic Development Department is mentioned, people tend to focus on the Tech park and Incubator, since they’ve gotten the most press. But Ms. Haythe is quick to point out that it’s a big county, and a lot of business property to look out for.

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“We sell the entire county, depending on the needs of the company. For example, if a company contacts our office and says, ‘We’re looking for a 15 thousand square foot facility,’ we’ll reach out to realtors. We’ll reach out to some of the individual communities, like Hurlock and Cambridge, to look for those particular sites because we have an idea of what’s here and maintain a list of specific properties that are for sale.
We’ll send out an email asking if anyone has anything to fit this particular company and then whatever comes back that is a fit, we will propose to the company in addition to specific demographics and workforce data.

“Not every area of Dorchester County has something, so it depends on what the company is looking for: water, sewer, natural gas, broadband — sometimes there’s a litany of requests that we just can’t fulfill. We had a request … They were looking for a 500,000 square foot facility and the water usage was astronomical, we could not respond to the RFI.”
We asked for more examples of success in Dochester.

“I believe we’ve had a lot of successful growth in the county. Protenergy was a new company that we were able to attract,” said Ms. Haythe. “They employ, 161 people; and they continue to expand. So that’s a good thing. Certainly the Hyatt’s seasonal, but they continue to employ people and attract more meetings and conferences there, that’s an asset to the community, Randy is great to work with. Chesapeake Gold Oysters — we were able to help them secure funding and there’s Safe Chain.

“They’re a third party logistics company that was a direct result of a relationship I had with Fred Smyth, a good friend. Their parents lived in Talbot County and their neighbor (Fred) referred them to me! John Mason, the former Business Attraction Manager, and I met with them on a Saturday morning at Denny’s and presented Dorchester County. Lo and behold — I said, ‘I have the perfect building for you,’ and showed them the building. They thought it was perfect as well. They worked with the EDO and Henry Hanna, leased it, and now, this year, they purchased the building, and they’re expanding.”

We asked if that kind of “a friend of a friend” deal happens often.

“It does. This job is about relationships. Networking. Building trust. When you build trust with people and develop those relationships, and they know you know what you’re doing and you’re good at what you do, they will send people your way. Safe Chain wasn’t even looking at Dorchester County.

“Dorchester County was not on their list. It is about relationships and connections. It does matter who you put in charge of your local Economic Development Office!”

Can it be brought down to hard numbers? In a decade where Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot continues to remind folks that economic improvement is slow moving in the state, does Keasha Haythe have hard numbers showing improvement in the county?

“Let’s see,” she says, referring to a pad full of notes. “More than 600 new jobs over the past 8 years. Yep. We’ve had approximately 30 new businesses, and 15 business expansions over the past 8 years.”

And all this has to happen one at a time. We comment that it’s got to be a grind. You really have to be out there, and you have to be beating the bushes to get business.
“That’s right, you do,” she says. “And you have to stay connected. You have to stay connected state wide. You have to stay connected domestically, and you have to stay connected internationally if you are going to do economic development right, and if you are going to be proactive.

“You have to stay up to date on the latest trends. You have to network within the State of Maryland. We had a project that ended up running into trouble later, but an example of being connected throughout the state, we had a company that was in Calvert County, and the building they wanted could not go up as quickly as they wanted to start their project.
“The state advised that there was a building in Dorchester that was already up, so we worked together to formulate a deal for this company to lease the facility in Dorchester County. We worked across county lines to make a deal happen. In the end, there were some federal laws that changed that prevented the company from really getting off the ground the way they wanted to, but that’s an example of how your relationships across the state, with your colleagues, with other Economic Development Directors, are so important.”

Considering the work necessary in keeping existing properties filled, we asked what finding tenants for the Tech Park may be like.

“I believe it’s going to be constant work. There are some bills in the General Assembly that would help the rural and distressed areas of Maryland, particularly Dorchester County, to bring manufacturing back to the areas. Dorchester County is poised for that. We have brave leaders within the State of Maryland, Governor Hogan and Secretary Mike Gill who are pushing Maryland open for business, and that’s going to trickle down to Dorchester County. If Senate Bill 386 is able to get legs and passed, that will help bring additional manufacturing to Dorchester. We have a work force to accommodate manufacturing. The tech park has the perfect land for a manufacturing firm, and that will be part of the success for Dorchester County, bringing manufacturing back to this area.

“There is evidence that manufacturers are looking to Maryland. They are looking to re-shore. They went off-shore, and now they’re looking to come back, Dorchester is poised and has ‘shovel ready’ lots here, the Incubator is going to help with attraction efforts. Since the building is here, companies and developers can come in and see this building and get ideas of what can potentially be built in the Tech Park. That was the plan, to have the incubator as Phase I. of the Park”

You can tell that the Tech Park and Incubator, two projects that have dominated Ms. Haythe’s working life in Dorchester, are really pet projects. Her eyes light up and her demeanor animates at the topic.

“There are five businesses that are here right now. We have one more moving in to run the snack bar, so that will be the sixth business. We have 13 offices, and we have five that are available. We also offer co-working space that has a monthly membership cost. Entrepreneurs can use the space daily, monthly, as little or as often as they choose.

“Then we have 3,500 square feet of light assembly or manufacturing space in the back, and we’ve had interest from a LED manufacturer in regards to that space. I’m hoping they will start-up — in that space, and hopefully grow enough to purchase a lot for their facility.
We ask, what does Dorchester County have to do to keep forward momentum going in economic development in the county?

“Dorchester County has to have a clear focus on economic development, and ensure that the department has what it needs to be successful. Currently we have three people, and we’ve been able to accomplish a lot, but that involved a lot of over-time and weekends, It involved sacrificing time with my husband and children to work. They definitely need to focus on making sure the department has the right people in place, because you’re doing multiple jobs.

“If you look at counties that are successful and that are proactively doing attraction and retention efforts, they have more people and are getting things done. You can’t do it all and do it well and continue to have a balanced life … Eventually you’re going to drop the ball.

“There definitely has to be another person added to the EDD staff. Hopefully there will be. It would be beneficial to the County to have a Certified Economic Developer as a Director, but, without a shadow of a doubt, it has to be someone who has economic development experience and knows how to do economic development. Or business experience… Certainly, having been a business owner, helped me do my job.

“I was fortunate to have the hands-on experience of being a business owner coupled with the economic development experience, to gain the knowledge that I needed to be successful.
“The purpose of being certified means that if you’re certified you can go anywhere to do economic development — because you have the tools, you have the knowledge.

“That experience doesn’t come overnight. It takes years — in fact, in the past you had to be in economic development for a minimum of five years before you could even sit for your certification exam. It does take that long to learn this field.

“There is no cookie-cutter approach to doing this. Every community is different, and the ones that think that they can do it and think that it’s easy. That’s because those of us who know what we’re doing make it look easy. It’s not easy. It’s not easy at all.”
We ask what’s next for Keasha Haythe.

“Launching my company,” she replies. “Doing a lot of consulting work. Right now, I’m looking at being part of a potential international team. I had a call from someone who has approached me about being on their international team as their Economic Development professional liaison, so I will be meeting with them to see if we can develop a partnership. Having worked in Queen Anne’s County with the delegation of Suzhou, China, I have experience in that area. That may be an opportunity.

“In addition to that I’ll continue to serve as the Maryland Economic Development Association President. We will be back in Dorchester County in May for our annual conference, and we’ll continue to be in Dorchester County until the year 2020. Additionally, I was recently appointed by the governor to the P3 Marketing Board for the state under the Maryland Department of Commerce, I will serve on that board in my role as an economic development professional.”

We ask if she has any regrets.

“None. No regrets at all. I enjoyed the opportunity,” she says with her characteristic big smile. “I have a heart for Dorchester County and do believe that, with the right person, they can continue to be proactive and successful. And any way I can help in my consulting role, I’m here to help.”

Paul Clipper is the editor of the Dorchester Banner. He can be reached at pclipper@newszap.com.

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