By Hope Gibbs
Signed into law on July 23 by Annapolis Mayor Joshua Cohen, the independent 501c(3) nonprofit organization of the Annapolis Economic Development Corporation works in partnership with the business community, city government, and residents to retain, expand, and attract business to the City of Annapolis.
Its 12-member board consists of Lara Fritts (pictured above), who as president and CEO is a nonvoting ex-officio member, and 11 dedicated, local business leaders who volunteer their time to support the commercial well-being of Annapolis.
The chairman and three additional board members are appointed by Cohen, and three other board members are ex-officio voting members representing the Annapolis & Anne Arundel County Conference & Visitors Bureau, the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce, and the City Manager for the City of Annapolis. The remaining four board members are selected from the at-large business community.
“What a year it has been,” says Fritts, 40. “Since I came on board, I am proud to say that with the help of everyone involved that we have grown from being a heavily bureaucratic government agency to an organization that truly has the best interests of the business owners in mind. Our goal is to change perceptions of what it means to do business in Annapolis, and I think we’re on a great path.”
One of the biggest misconceptions about Annapolis, Fritts believes, is that too many firms consider Annapolis unfriendly to business. In fact, when Fritts decided to interview for her job in 2010, she asked several business owners in the area how they felt about the situation, and the responses were consistent.
“They told me the application process was too slow, the government wasn’t business-friendly, and worse, that it was almost cost-prohibitive to do business in Annapolis because the city was mired down in red tape,” Fritts shares. “Obviously, that didn’t bode well for economic development.
With more than two decades of experience in the economic development business, she knew that for a city to attract new business, existing buildings need to be continuously revitalized and repurposed, and in some cases newly constructed to adapt to the changing needs of the community. In addition, storefronts have to be filled, and property values need to increase.
“But if it takes a company two years to get a permit, that’s not good news when it comes to economic development.”
Never one to shy away from a good fight, Fritts saw the challenge as an opportunity.
In the time she has been running the EDC, Fritts has found support in many people in town, including Mayor Joshua J. Cohen and the Annapolis City Council have also embraced the work of the EDC, Fritts says, which is critical to bringing in new companies.
“The mayor and his team are really committed to improving the process,” Fritts says. “The board and I made several recommendations that are being implemented this year.”
The first, she explains, is that every Wednesday, anybody who will ever have a hand on a permit and the process meets to preview the permit.
How does that help? “Well now, instead of waiting for a letter to be kicked back rejecting a permit because a door doesn’t swing the right way—the business owners know this is a problem to fixed before they submit the plan,” she shares.
A great example of the EDC’s progress is the Sperry Top-Sider shoe company, which opened downtown in 2011.
“It took only 45 days from the time they submitted their permit to the ribbon-cutting,” Fritts shares. “That was unheard of in Annapolis.”
The second step, Fritts explains, is a bill that takes the Board of Appeals out of certain steps in the processes: “Heretofore, there were two meetings: Every plan went through the Planning Committee and the Board of Appeals. Why? So this new legislation, we’ll take the duplicative meeting out and not have to go to the Board of Appeals with all plan developments and special exceptions.”
Fritts and the EDC board also suggested that the city consolidate the development components of several departments in City Hall.
“Whereas the Planning & Zoning Department, Department of Neighborhood and Environmental Planning, and the Fire Marshall’s office were in different buildings around the city, now all of these offices are in one building. Having them all under one roof will make it much easier for business owners trying to get all of their paperwork in order.”
In terms of streamlining, Fritts says she’s feeling good about the work that the EDC board and its supporters have accomplished to date. It’s the long-term mission that she’s now focusing on.
“The reason these changes were so important to make in the first year is that we now can more easily recruit new business because they know City Hall is efficient and friendly,” says Fritts, noting that already the EDC is making strides.
In the last 15 months, the EDC’s 30 companies that have set up businesses in Annapolis have created 400 new jobs. And, there have been 17 retentions and expansions, “which in a community of 35,000 people is not bad,” Fritts insists. Plus, she says, businesses have stepped up the pace when it comes to investing in and improving their properties.
To keep the momentum going, the EDC has launched the Inventors & Entrepreneurs of Annapolis group.
“This is the mezzanine-level service for people who have a great idea, but don’t know how to market it, make and distribute it, and/or get funding,” she explains. “So in a peer environment, they can test the waters before they go in front of an investor. It will give them a second chance to make a good first impression. And we’re really excited about it.”
In terms of marketing, Fritts says the EDC now has a bigger presence at important industry trade shows and events, and each month the EDC hosts an educational program that brings together the business community to learn something new while they network with each other.
“Entrepreneurs are great people, but too often they aren’t great at the back end of running their companies,” Fritts knows. “We are trying to give them the tools so they can be more successful.”
Fritts says her laser beam focus on helping a region grow has long been a passion of hers.
After graduating in 1994 from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee with a master’s degree in Urban Studies (and an emphasis on economic development), she worked in the revitalization district for the City of Milwaukee. Next came a stint as director of the On Broadway Main Street program, where she made an impact bringing arts to the community.
In the decades since, she has worked for urban development programs in Green Bay, WI, Rockville, MD, and DC—where she ran the Washington DC Tech Council, and helped turn around Southeast Fairfax Development Corporation.
She also began work on her PhD, before the job at the Annapolis EDC became available.
“I have this thing in my head that I can do anything I set my mind to,” Fritts admits. “I think it is part of my only-child syndrome, because I have two supportive parents who have always told me that I am capable and smart.”
Her mom also put a high value on education and insisted that she get the best education she could, Fritts adds.
“Her thinking was that everything could disappear from your life—your friends, your job, your spouse. But your education will never leave you. You’ll always be able to do something important with it. And that, I am convinced, is very true.”
With her supportive husband, former CIA agent Mike Fritts, at her side, Fritts knows that she has her work cut out for her at the EDC.
“But I am excited about what is possible and energized by the work that I have been able to do so far,” she says. “I think the best is yet to come.”
For more information about the Annapolis EDC, visit annapolisedc.org.