High-tech hopes for Maryland's economic future

BIOTECH ALLEY?

May 21, 1991|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Evening Sun Staff

Maryland's visionaries have seen the future, and it's not us.

The sons of steelworkers and daughters of dockworkers may find themselves in sterilized plants packaging the latest medical wizardry. Coveralls will give way to lab coats, and business suits to protective breathing apparatus.

Toiling in offices, labs and on high-tech assembly lines, future workers here will breed pollution-eating microbes, mass-produce antibodies that destroy tumors, and sell super-sophisticated communications equipment to customers around the globe.

After years of scattered economic development efforts, leaders of government and business have focused on this ambitious, high-tech vision for what they want Maryland's economy to look like. The General Assembly approved this year millions of dollars worth of initiatives to make Maryland a center for two industries of the future: biotechnology and information technology.

The boosters for high-tech hope it can replace jobs lost in the industries now waning in the state, such as heavy manufacturing and defense contracting. Maryland's job-making machine began to sputter last year, and economists say the long run of double-digit growth that dominated the 1980s is out of gas.

Some involved in the project dream that the Baltimore-Washington corridor could come to be known as the nation's "Biotech Alley," joining California's Silicon Valley and Boston's Route 128 in the annals of job-rich business centers. Others are skeptical.

The plan builds on existing strengths. Maryland is home to large numbers of engineers and scientists. Internationally acclaimed research institutions such as Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland are augmented by no fewer than 42 federal laboratories researching everything from AIDs to the design of warships.

Lavish defense spending during the 1980s left Maryland with hundreds of companies specializing in electronics, computer science, and aviation. In a major investment in information technology, Bell Atlantic built a $20 million "switching center" -- a collection of sophisticated microprocessors and circuit boards -- Silver Spring.

Statistics show a massive employment shift over the past 10 years, away from textiles, steel and other "basic industries" to such things as computer software design, chemicals and electronics.

State leaders want to build on this base with a combination of public and private inducements. They hope to, in the questionable grammar of modern business, "grow" those vocations into a dominant economic force here.

In concert with the effort, the Greater Baltimore Committee is expected to announce this week a new "vision" for Baltimore's economic future. The business group wants to establish the region as a headquarters for the "life sciences," including biotechnology and medicine.

There are problems with the ambitious shift to technology. It will require a renaissance in education, to train the workers to fill the new jobs. And it exposes the state to some potentially hazardous substances.

And it can fail.

CAN'T BE FORCED

Just about every state has, at one time or other over the past 10 years, tried to take the reins of its economy and guide it toward a finish line established by economists and planners. It rarely works. Like a headstrong pony, the economy goes its own way. Successes such as Silicon Valley and Route 128 occur spontaneously, not because they were planned.

"It's hard to create something out of nothing. States are not strong enough to create trends," said Doug Ross, president of the Corporation for Enterprise Development, an economic-development consulting group based in Washington.

The key is finding a strength and developing it with just the right amount of government aid, he said. Too much interference by the state, and private enterprise will become squeamish. Not enough nurturing, and the business will go elsewhere.

"It's not a question of dreaming up your future. It's getting behind market forces," Ross said.

The high-tech clusters around Boston and San Francisco developed because of the strong universities there. Frequently, the upstart, go-for-broke companies that made those areas were founded by professors from the nearby schools. But state and local governments soon recognized the bonanza and encouraged it, he said.

"You never know in retrospect. If Massachusetts had been indifferent to Route 128, would they have been successful? I doubt it. But it's difficult to prove," said Ross, who believes that Maryland's approach could become a model for other states.

FIELDS OF PROMISE

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, D-City, said past criticism of Maryland's "shotgun" economic development efforts led to a special committee and an exhaustive study. The result is a coordinated approach, he said.

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