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While some say state officials should have taken more time to choose a replacement for Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development Secretary Christian S. Johansson, the outgoing secretary said Wednesday that Deputy Secretary Dominick Murray is the best person for the job.

The decision by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) to unveil Murray as Johansson’s replacement occurred on the same day Johansson announced he was leaving in mid-January to head a new group with Laureate Education of Baltimore focusing on university partnerships.

Johansson, who became DBED secretary in 2009 after three months as interim chief, said Murray is the best person he knew to build on signature programs like InvestMaryland, which has raised $84 million in capital investments for local companies through an online auction of tax credits to insurance companies.

“He has been a true partner,” Johansson said of Murray in a phone interview Wednesday. “I couldn’t think of a better person to lead this agency.”

Murray, 58, who started with DBED as an assistant secretary in 2007, has been particularly involved in the “Maryland Made Easy” initiative, which seeks to streamline permits, licenses and other business dealings with the state. He was Baltimore’s economic development officer when O’Malley was mayor.

“I developed a fairly good reputation for helping [business] projects get through the system,” Murray said Wednesday. “We will continue to work to make that happen in state agencies.”

‘Very responsive’

Johansson, 40, has been DBED secretary more than twice as long as his predecessor, David Edgerley, who also headed Montgomery County’s economic development department. The outgoing secretary has been “very responsive” to the needs of the business community, said Marilyn Balcombe, president and CEO of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce.

“He has had to deal with a very difficult economy, and I think he's done a good job,” she said.

Douglas Becker, CEO of Laureate, which runs an international network of higher education institutions serving more than 740,000 students, said in a statement that Johansson is “an outstanding public servant in Maryland and someone whose career I have followed for many years.”

Johansson said the agency has “made good progress” on objectives set when he took over in 2009. Besides InvestMaryland and Maryland Made Easy, he cited his role in initiatives for biotechnology companies like the BioMaryland 2020 Strategic Plan, the Small Business Credit Initiative, reviving the Maryland Economic Development Commission, strengthening the cybersecurity industry and the formation of the Governor’s Commission on Small Business.

“This is the right time to take the next step,” said Johansson, who got married in October.

Still, some have criticized DBED’s focus in recent years. Under Johansson, DBED “hasn’t produced” in attracting businesses and retaining major Fortune 500 companies, though the blame for that should not be all on the outgoing secretary, said Larry Hogan, chairman of the economic watchdog group Change Maryland, who was appointments secretary under former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).

Hogan noted that the state had seen numerous Fortune 500 companies exit the state — the number will be down to three, if the Coventry Health Care deal closes, from seven in 2009. Maryland also had lost key economic development battles to Virginia and other states, such as the corporate headquarters of Northrop Grumman. DBED “needs more independence” from the governor’s office and should not just be “producing power point slides” that favor O’Malley, Hogan said.

“DBED has not been aggressive in job creation,” he said. “Maryland is not on the radar screen for most national site selection consultants.”

Johansson said Maryland has added jobs faster than most states since the Great Recession officially ended in mid-2009. That includes faster than Virginia, which many say has a better business climate than Maryland.

The jobs’ boost has come largely in the private sector during a time when the federal government is shedding jobs, Johansson said. “Maryland has been one of the best-performing states in the nation during this recovery period,” he said.

As far as losing Fortune 500 headquarters, most of those have been beyond state government’s control, as they have occurred when a business is bought by an out-of-state company, Johansson said. He said he has worked hard to focus on the state’s key growth areas like biotech and innovative companies, and expansion there does not always make splashy headlines.

“To do meaningful change, it takes time,” Johansson said.

Most job growth is from existing companies, which is why the Maryland Made Easy programs are so important, Murray said. He has met some economic development officials from Virginia who said they “wished they had what we have,” he said.

National search?

Hogan said he would have “loved to have seen a national search, so we can attract the best economic development professional we can find.” He added that he did not know Murray personally and thus wanted to “reserve judgment” on him. Murray’s current salary is $139,500.

While Balcombe said she was surprised that O’Malley named a replacement so quickly, “given the political cycle it makes some sense.” A new governor and cabinet will not be installed for another two years, but the election cycle already has begun, she said.

“I don't think we have the luxury of time to bring in someone new — especially outside candidates,” Balcombe said. “The process is too long and the learning curve is too steep, given that the job has a fairly definitive end date… We need someone strong to step in without missing a beat.”

O’Malley said in a statement that the state was “fortunate to have someone with Dominick’s knowledge and extensive background in economic development take the helm.”

Besides working on programs like Maryland Made Easy, Murray, a Michigan native, has led the agency’s regional development team, offering assistance to local economic development offices and businesses. He designed and implemented DBED’s participation in the Governor’s Delivery Unit and has served on the Greater Baltimore Committee’s Technology Council, the Maryland Aviation Administration board, the Governor’s Workforce Investment board and others. He also has worked in sales, marketing and senior management at large corporations like Chrysler, Westinghouse, GE Capital and CBS Radio.

Johansson and Murray have frequently attended Maryland Chamber of Commerce events and have pulled people together to work on issues that impede business growth, said William Burns, a spokesman for the chamber.

He cited a five-year plan by the Maryland Economic Development Commission, the formation of the Small Business Commission and re-establishing the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Manufacturing Competitiveness.

Murray is a "good choice" to build on the accomplishments of the last four years and work with the business community to make Maryland more competitive in private-sector job growth and business investment, Burns said. "We look forward to continuing to work with him," he said.

Robert Walker, DBED’s chief operating officer, will become deputy secretary. The changes are expected to take effect around Jan. 10, Johansson said.

kshay@gazette.net