Area is seen in a position to lead world


May 24, 1991|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Evening Sun Staff

One of the most startling facts about the new "vision" for the area's economic future unveiled yesterday by the Greater Baltimore Committee is how much of it is already a reality.

The committee -- a venerable voice for Baltimore-area business -- is suggesting that the region set a goal of entering the next century as an international headquarters for the life sciences.

The idea is that a coordinated effort by business, labor and government can construct a new engine for economic growth out of medicine and biotechnology.

In fact, the life sciences are already responsible for a great number of jobs in Baltimore, a city that has been moving away from its industrial roots for more than 20 years. Despite Baltimore's self-image of smokestacks and steel, the percentage of workers engaged in manufacturing here is well below national averages.

"Baltimore is a big [life sciences] headquarters already and is in many ways the largest in the country. That is where our competitive advantages globally lie," said Charles W. McMillion, a former Johns Hopkins University researcher who has studied Maryland's economy, and who recently became president of a strategic planning group called MBG Consulting Inc. in Washington.

The largest private employer in the region hasn't been Bethlehem Steel Corp. for decades. It's now the Johns Hopkins University and health system, with a combined work force of 28,000. Sixteen of the metropolitan area's top 50 employers are health-related. Maryland receives more research dollars from the National Institutes of Health than does any other state, according to the GBC.

The convention center books more medical and scientific meetings than any other types. The region's fastest growing manufacturing sector, printing and publishing, is active in medical publishing. Even construction has been enjoying a burst of building of hospitals, research facilities and other high-technology projects.

The GBC is enlisting leaders across the community to encourage future growth in life sciences by making it the focus of economic, educational and cultural planning.

Some examples of what could result:

* A special biotechnology high school and more life sciences courses at all schools in coordination with area universities.

* Community colleges focusing on training and retraining of technicians, medical care-givers, and specialized trades.

* Special life sciences exhibits and orientations for the city's zoo, aquarium and science center.

Most of all, the region's wealth of high-tech researchers could yield high-tech manufacturing companies and service providers. For example, breakthroughs in a biotechnology lab could result in a company to harvest oysters that are genetically engineered to resist disease. New, cancer-fighting drugs could be produced, packaged and marketed from a Baltimore headquarters.

The GBC outlined a four-part strategy to reach the goal: improving education in the region, developing a more entrepreneurial business culture, enlisting all elements of the community and building a life sciences infrastructure. As parts of the infrastructure, the GBC mentioned the proposed high-speed rail link with Washington and the Christopher Columbus Center for Marine Research and Exploration that is planned for the Inner Harbor.

"Great communities set directions for their economies," said William L. Jews, president of Dimensions Health Corp. and the chairman of the GBC task force that came up with the new vision.

At the GBC's annual meeting last night, Jews told an audience of more than 900 that "in the new economy, most Baltimoreans will not work in laboratories or wear lab coats. Most employers will not be hospitals or research institutions."

Over the next 10 years the life sciences will emerge as a major source of jobs and spin-off activities, he said.

While there's no guarantee the effort will work, the alternative -- doing nothing -- poses a greater risk, he said.

Mathias J. DeVito, chairman of the GBC and of the Rouse Co., said: "Don't get us wrong. If Mazda wants to build a plant here, we'll fight for it."

But if the new vision is to succeed, it must receive resources diverted from other economic development efforts, officials acknowledged.

McMillion said it may be time to re-evaluate support for heavy industry, the port, and other businesses that don't have growth potential.

"In the past we have put enough into a project to get a couple of press releases out. But the competition is really fierce. We can't continue to put money into things that don't work," he said.

Pradeep Ganguly, associate director of research for the Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Development, said the life sciences have become one of the largest sources of employment in the state.

"Traditionally, manufacturing has always been strong. But it has been declining in recent years and it is time to find a new engine for growth," Ganguly said.

Robert Keller, GBC president, said his group will push to keep a political focus on life sciences. Both Gov. William Donald Schaefer and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke spoke in support of the vision at the annual meeting, and Keller said other leaders have been involved.

To be successful, the plan has to win the active involvement of all elements of the community, he said. The task force that created the vision included members of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, Baltimore Building and Construction Trades Council, and numerous corporations and political figures.

Speaking at last night's meeting, Schmoke touched on the theme of inclusiveness, saying: "If Baltimore is to be a city where science comes to life, then our entire city must be involved."

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