Economic downturn makes counties rethink the future SWITCHING GEARS

January 28, 1991|By Kevin Thomas | Kevin Thomas,Evening Sun Staff

Downtown Columbia hums with activity -- even at night. A the sun sets, residents descend on a host of trendy restaurants and pulsing nightclubs while others opt for a walk along the lake.

Sixty miles to the north, on a parcel near Aberdeen where once a warehouse seemed more likely, commuters flood into a futuristic industrial park, where a university offers training and a host of high-technology businesses operate.

Meanwhile, along a stretch of Chesapeake Bay shore in Anne Arundel County, a charter fishing boat leaves the new, multipurpose pier, as a crabbing vessel comes in and a gathering of businessmen looks on from a nearby conference center.

This is the future in Baltimore's suburbs. Or could be.

All these projects are ideas that, for now, reside mostly in the minds of visionaries: planners, developers and business people who advocate economic development opportunities as a way of making money, creating jobs and, in the process, changing the way we live.

Such projects were not foremost on the agendas of county governments in recent years. Their leaders instead focused on trying to contain the unprecedented growth the suburbs saw in the 1980s.

A maritime center in Anne Arundel is an idea promoted by the state Marine Trades Association, no high-technology park has yet been developed in Harford County and virtually no one lives in downtown Columbia, where few choices for night life exist.

But such projects are being pushed up the priority lists as cash-strapped counties confront the downturn of the 1990s.

The economy has always moved in cycles, from growth to retrenchment. With those changes, priorities and goals shift, too. It's not that growth management is no longer important, nor that economic development hadn't gone on all along, county officials say.

"What has changed is that it's easier to talk about economic development in times of a downturn," former Baltimore County Executive Donald P. Hutchinson says.

Hutchinson, who now directs the Maryland Economic Growth Associates, a non-profit economic development organization, says that with the recession looming and with the last election having created so many new leaders, the 1990s will thrust economic development to the fore.

"When things are going well, other issues kind of take over," Hutchinson explains. "People start to worry about traffic

problems, about the environment. . . . But when things are going bad, people start to worry about their next pay check."

A case in point: A year ago, the talk among visionaries was about the need for skilled, low-level workers, he says. Jobs were plentiful, the problem was finding and keeping skilled employees.

"That's still important," Hutchinson says. "But the fact of the matter is that everyone is talking about jobs again."

Local governments are also worrying about tax revenues. Indeed, many counties are anticipating budget deficits, service cutbacks or even layoffs.

SOME LIKELY CUTS

Regional planners say that the most likely cuts, over the short term at least, will be in areas where the result will not be immediately apparent to most residents. Those areas include deferred maintenance of some roads, a delay in building a new waste-disposal system or canceling a computer order, for instance.

Restricting residential growth, a fixation of the last few years, will become less important because market forces have nearly ground to a halt the construction of new homes.

Now, counties will focus on having more of their residents working in that jurisdiction, planners say.

Not only does the county benefit from business property tax revenues in that situation, but also from a share of the residents' income tax. Also, as more residents work in their home county, they travel less miles and make fewer demands for more roads.

But with new priorities and new leadership, some in government circles, privately at least, wonder whether the regional cooperation achieved recently will disintegrate.

Charles I. Ecker, the new Howard County executive, raised eyebrows recently among regional planners when he implied that Howard was going to have to start looking out for itself more, at least when it comes to attracting new business.

With a $20 million deficit projected in a budget that must be balanced by June, he said the county needs business to reduce its heavy dependence on residential property tax revenue.

Many interpreted the comment, delivered at a planning conference in Baltimore, as a warning that increased competition among the counties was in the offing.

"Economic development can be done on a cooperative basis," says Guy Hager, executive director of the Baltimore Regional Council of Governments. Ample opportunity exists for Howard County to lure businesses currently in Montgomery County and Northern Virginia without focusing on industries in other Baltimore area jurisdictions, he says.

COMPETITION ABOUNDS

But Beverly Wilhide, Ecker's administrative assistant, says Howard already faces greater competition from within the Baltimore region.

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