Washington boomed, Baltimore just plodded

August 09, 1992|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

The prosperity gap between the Baltimore and Washington (( areas widened during the 1980s, even as the two regions blended into one geographically.

The Washington area boomed while the Baltimore region plodded, according to newly released 1990 census figures.

The population of the Washington area (3.9 million) grew nearly three times as fast as the Baltimore region (2.4 million), only partly because of the addition of Calvert and Frederick counties plus Stafford County, Va., to the official Washington sphere of influence.

Washington-area residents were even more affluent, highly educated, fully employed and spaciously housed in relation to their Baltimore counterparts than they had been at the beginning of the 1980s.

By decade's end, the median income of a Washington-area household had grown to $46,884, more than $10,000 above the Baltimore region median of $36,550.

Baltimore's response to this economic drubbing? If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

The two regions are expected to become officially one late this year.

"This will be the largest merger of metropolitan areas in world history," said Richard L. Forstall, a specialist on metro areas at the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Baltimore-Washington -- or will it be Washington-Baltimore? -- Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Area would merge No. 8 Washington and No. 18 Baltimore into the nation's fourth-largest metropolitan area, behind only New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

"It matters because of visibility, and that's the primary reason we're excited about it," said Robert T. Grow, executive director of the Washington-Baltimore Regional Association. "When companies ask for the top five regions, we'll appear in that."

The U.S. Office of Management and Budget will make the final decision -- and bestow the area's name -- but Mr. Forstall said, "The two areas are due to combine. We're not making any secret of that."

The regions qualify for consolidation because their urbanized zones meet (at Laurel and along the Howard-Montgomery border) and because more than 120,000 workers commute from one region to the other (about three-quarters of them from the Baltimore area).

"These are two originally entirely separate places," Mr. Forstall said. "If we told Francis Scott Key or H. L. Mencken that Baltimore-Washington would become one metropolitan area, it would have startled them a good deal, even as recently as Mencken's time.

"It's Washington that's different," he added. "It's not like any other large metro area in the country. It separates itself over and over again -- higher incomes, higher costs, the educational level, the percentage of people in professional jobs. It's because of the federal government. That's clearly the central economic fact about Washington."

Consider:

* More than 85 percent of Washington-area adults are high school graduates, nearly 40 percent are college grads and one in six has a graduate or professional degree.

* Fully 20 percent of Washington-area workers are chiefs, holding "executive, administrative or managerial" positions.

* Nearly nine times as many foreign immigrants (267,000) poured into the thriving Washington job market in the 1980s than into the Baltimore area.

* Almost 50,000 Washington-area households have incomes of $150,000 or more, three times as many as in the Baltimore region.

* More than one-quarter of the Washington area's housing units have four or more bedrooms, and almost one in five homes has three or more vehicles.

So, what dowry could Baltimore bring to such a marriage?

Well, it's less congested and it's cheaper. Average commuting times are shorter here (26 minutes in the Baltimore area vs. 29 1/2 minutes in Washington), and housing costs are much lower ($490 average rent in the Baltimore region vs. $667 in the Washington area).

Oh, and Baltimore has a port -- and a baseball team.

Actually, says Jeff Valentine, deputy director of the Greater Baltimore Committee, the Orioles are a good example of how both sides can benefit in a consolidated region. Put the ball team in a stadium convenient to the region, and you've got a full house every night.

"Right now the Orioles are the Baltimore-Washington Orioles," he said.

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