Rouse executive cheers Columbia's '90s potential

January 07, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

Columbia's slowly improving economy will never be as good as the 1980s but still offers a lot of opportunities, a Rouse Co. vice president said yesterday.

"Columbia has had positive job growth two years in a row . . . and the lowest [office] vacancy rate in years," Ed Ely, director of land sales and marketing for the company that developed the planned city, told a group of local business leaders.

Signs of encouragement are everywhere, Mr. Ely said, holding up a newspaper headline proclaiming, "Business is Up!"

Although 769,704 square feet of office space is still vacant in Columbia -- 13 percent of the 5.6 million square feet available -- he is encouraged that the rate is the lowest in years, Mr. Ely said during a slide presentation to the Columbia Business Exchange.

Office rents remain low but are likely to go up this year, Mr. Ely said. Warehouse rents are also likely to go up this year or next as the economic recovery continues, he said.

In the midst of that good news, Mr. Ely projected a slide, reading, "God, please give me another shot at the '80s. . . . This time I won't blow it."

That shot won't be coming, Mr. Ely said. Few people realized it at the time, but the economy was driven by the demographics of people born from 1945 to 1965.

Like most of his audience, Mr. Ely is a member of that group -- people who comprise 33 percent of the population nationally and 43 percent of the population in Columbia.

Using that group as a base, Mr. Ely took his audience on a statistical tour of what they might expect in the next five years.

"We have an incredible impact on American society," he said, and "we are beginning to move into our peak earning years."

In the past, researchers were able to predict "with unbelievable accuracy what we would buy and how we would act," he said. That is not true any longer. Now, the so-called baby-boom population is becoming more affluent and more diverse, he said.

It is also getting older. Already, 66 percent of Columbia households have no children under 18, compared with 60 percent nationwide. And the first of the baby boomers haven't even turned 50 yet. That will come in 1996.

Although people in their 40s are in their peak earning period, people in their 50s have the highest discretionary income of any age group, he said. They do 80 percent of the luxury travel, have 48 percent of the luxury cars, read the most newspapers, take twice the medicine and spend the most per person on groceries.

Because of changing demographics, the rate of growth in zTC population, households, the labor market and new jobs will slow to about half of what they were in the 1980s, he said, although Columbia's job and labor market will still have the highest growth rate in the Baltimore region.

Currently, average household income in Columbia is $72,150, he said, with many households having dual incomes. Dual income families spend 42 cents of every dollar in restaurants or on prepared foods they eat at home, he said.

Many of those families will be moving into large houses or remodeling the ones they now have. Still, residential real estate sales will be only 50 percent to 60 percent of the 1980s level, he predicted.

Demographic changes in family status will affect the economy, he said. Ten years ago, 68 percent of the people in Columbia were married. Today, only 59 percent are. Five percent live together, something researchers didn't even ask about in 1984, he said.

The number of adults who have never married is more than three times what it was in 1984 -- 16 percent today, 5 percent then. There are more divorced people -- 12 percent now, 8 percent then; fewer separated people -- 3 percent now, 16 percent then; and slightly more widows and widowers -- 5 percent now, 3 percent then.

People are making fewer trips to the mall and other shopping centers, but are spending as much or more than before, he said.

E9 "There are still a lot of opportunities here for us."

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