Heavy hitters come to Cecil County
Nov 01, 2017 12:15PM
By J. Chambless
Amazon’s fulfillment center has already started operations at Principio Business Park, off Route 40 in North East.
By Drewe Phinny
With two major companies arriving in Cecil County, and two others apparently on the way, there is excitement in the air as Amazon and Lidl bring new jobs and a promise for some of the extra benefits that accompany big-name commerce.
Amazon is the online retail giant that continues to expand its reach into apparel, furniture, food, toys and jewelry. And Lidl (pronounced LEE-duhl) is the German global discount supermarket chain which public relations specialist Jessica Haggard describes as, “operating more than 10,000 stores in 28 countries, offering customers the highest quality fresh produce, meat, bakery items and a wide array of household products at the lowest possible prices.” Lidl has been compared to Aldi, which operates a facility at Route 40 and Chesapeake Boulevard in Elkton.
Amazon’s 1.2-million-square-foot fulfillment center has already started operations at Principio Business Park, off Route 40 in North East. Bruce England, executive director of the Susquehanna Workforce Network, said in an e-mail that Amazon has recruited hundreds of workers to staff their facilities over the past few months.
“SWN and our workforce partners assisted in the recruitment and hiring event activities. Many of these workers started at the Principio Business Park on Sept. 10,” he wrote. “Others may likely have differing start dates, depending on their assigned shifts, Amazon’s ramp-up and scheduling plans.”
The plan is to have a workforce of approximately 1,000. “We have been advised that they were very pleased with the quality and quantity of applicants interested in positions,” England wrote. “This employment expansion in the region is a very positive opportunity for area residents.”
Haggard confirmed that Lidl has invested $100 million in the facility at 81 Belvidere Road in Perryville, which will serve as both a regional headquarters and a distribution center. “The facility is scheduled to open no later than 2018,” Haggard said. The latest projection on job opportunities is between 200 and 250.
Bonnie Grady, in her fourth year as president/CEO of the Cecil County Chamber of Commerce, thinks this area is perfectly suited for new business success. Grady pointed to the wisdom of economist Anirban Basu, chairman and CEO of Sage Policy Group. In speaking to the county Chamber of Commerce, Basu stressed the location of Cecil County. “He has always said that Cecil County is the prime real estate, the most developable land between Boston and Richmond, and Philadelphia and Washington,” Grady said. “And that we have more good land to offer for commercial enterprise than any other region. You can just look at a satellite image and see it. And on top of that, we have easy access to millions of people – workers, potential clients and customers. We have rail, deep water and I-95. What more could you want? So we are positioned geographically and infrastructure-wise in a prime place. It makes sense that people are coming here.”
Grady, who has worked with several chambers, feels that a county’s personality is influenced by several variables. “Each community has its own character, its own culture,” she said. “We’re attracting factories, distribution centers. A lot of the time, the culture is driven by the county planning department and local zoning philosophies. The local government sets the tone. And the types of businesses we’re bringing in right now are very well suited for where we’re located. This works great for us.
“So, of course, we’re excited with Amazon. But with every new achievement, there come challenges and we’ll find out what those are. And we’ll also find solutions because that’s the kind of community we are. When your roots are agricultural, you find a way to get things done. And that’s what’s so exciting about Cecil County.”
As the new business model expands into more mergers and acquisitions (Amazon and Whole Foods; Walmart and Google), Grady noted, “It’s just another wave of how we do things here in America. It’s changing the way we perform as consumers.”
Another aspect of the Amazon/Lidl development is infrastructure improvement.
“Our folks are working on that,” Grady added. “You can see all the construction going on along Route 40, especially through North East down toward Perryville. We need to close that gap. In order for businesses to come here, and to have them thrive and grow, they need the gas, the fiber and the water, and Cecil County is very proactive about that. I also think it’s going to be the same with rail transportation. At some point we will see a success with that. We just have to keep working on it.
“We are redefining our local economy … moving from our agricultural roots to opportunities with big companies in the manufacturing and distribution fields. It’s a whole new approach and it could be the first piece of a much larger puzzle. If a community doesn’t grow, it dies. And if it’s reasonable, responsible, thoughtful, deliberate planned growth, it can make a community better and stronger.”
That same kind of optimism is reflected by others in the business community. Jack Schammel chairs the chamber’s board of directors executive committee and is a business coach for Leading Logic, LLC, a company that provides organizational development services.
Schammel had some observations about the new additions. “When you have distribution centers like that, there’s increasing competition for labor in the area, you have to up your game,” he said. “And that’s what Lidl is doing. Lidl is known worldwide for ‘The employee comes first, period.’ And they want to train people, to invest in them, and they expect them to be around for quite a long time. In fact, I got the distinct impression that the concept of jumping from job to job every two years was an alien concept to European reps.”
Schammel explained that Lidl’s model is based on limited selection and specific products in each category, giving the consumer tremendous buying leverage. Lidl’s investment in continuous product improvement, means employee feedback. “It’s employee-driven, where boots on the ground are providing some of the most valuable feedback,” he said.
The Lidl property is visible from Route 40. “It’s a fairly complex plant, with refrigeration installed,” Schammel said. “The Germans are known for efficiency. So it’ll be a streamlined operation, and they’re using a lot of technology there.
“Amazon is a different kind of operation; they don’t have to worry about things like refrigeration,” he added. “The process is a lot faster …When it comes to huge volumes of pick, pack and ship, nobody does it better. Their error rates are phenomenally low.”
In surveying the big picture of the Amazon/Lidl job projections, Chris Moyer, director of economic development, had a broader view.
“Cecil County is big enough that you can have your cake and eat it, too. You have the growth corridor and [I-95 and Route 40], but there’s plenty of room to spread out either to the north or the south. We have 1,900 jobs coming in the next 17 months. Amazon’s the bulk of that with 1,000 jobs, Lidl and Fortress Steel, TRUaire and two other companies I can’t talk about yet. A lot of great things are going to happen in a short amount of time. So we have 4.5 million square feet coming online in the next 17 months for those jobs.”
In describing Cecil County’s business appeal, Moyer used the same word as Grady – developable. “Cecil County has developable industrial property and nowhere else nearby really has. Harford County has a bunch of land, but not industrial land anymore. It’s all zoned residential.”
Cecil, on the other hand, has room in its growth corridor. Of the next four businesses coming to the county, all will be in the current top 12.
So what has led to this upswing? Moyer cited one major factor. “The Stewart family [out of York, Pa.] owns a very large group of properties contiguously between Perryville and North East. They had designs 10 or 15 years ago to build an industrial park, and they started with companies like Restoration Hardware and GE, but in the last eight months, they’ve signed deals that will triple the employment at Principio Business Park, with the addition of Amazon and Lidl.”
To lessen the truck traffic expected on Route 22 and Route 272, Moyer said he is working with the state of Maryland to get an interchange on I-95 for Belvidere Road to directly serve all of Principio.
The subject of the Stewart family came up again when county executive Alan J. McCarthy was asked about the current increase in jobs. “It didn’t just happen. It was quite purposeful,” he said. “The Stewart family was responsible because they were willing to front-fund the money to put in the infrastructure so we could have these businesses. It’s their land, and they put up the money for the gas lines, sewer lines … they even created their own water company, which has since been sold to Artesian. Without these things, we would still be where we were 10 years ago. It’s a wonderful family and you couldn’t ask for better corporate partners. They have basically helped take Cecil County out of the Stone Age.”
McCarthy confirmed Moyer’s statement that between 1,500 and 2,000 jobs will be created over the next year.
Another Cecil County business that performs a similar function to Amazon and Lidl is the IKEA Distribution Center in Perryville. The center opened in 2002, and now transports products to 39 IKEA stores in the U.S. and Canada. Communications specialist Cara Cordrey pointed out that approximately half of the 600-plus workers have been with the company five years or more. “Our co-workers are our greatest resource and the key to our success,” Cordrey said. In commenting on the addition of Amazon and Lidl, Cordrey said, “With regard to the building of other warehouses in this area. We can only speak to the success of our business.”
Earlier this year, a Baltimore Business Journal cover story was headlined, “Sleepy Cecil County is waking up.” It sounds like the alarm has rung and the workforce is ready to rise and shine.