As the Suburbs Grow Farther Away, the City Sinks

April 11, 1994|By TIM BAKER

If you drive west on either Route 32 or Route 108 about five miles out of Columbia, you'll come to Clarksville. It's a little rural crossroads town. A few stores, a gas station, a firehouse. Nice place.

Or at least it used to be. Then in the early 1980s, young middle-class professionals and executives started moving in. Now most of the farms are gone. Developers have cut the fields into rows of two-acre lots. Mock Tudor mansions and French chateaus dot the landscape. Suddenly it's become the seventh wealthiest community in Central Maryland.

Don't try to get to Clarksville in the late afternoon. By four o'clock every weekday the cars on these two roads are backed up for miles.

Most of these people are not driving home from work in Baltimore or Washington. They're commuting from their jobs in suburbia. Their offices ring the beltway from Glen Burnie to Towson. Or they're coming home from the suburban centers in the Baltimore-Washington corridor: Laurel, Greenbelt, Rockville.

These commuters aren't fleeing nasty urban problems. At the end of the day they get in their cars and drive away from all those awful suburban vexations. Crime. Bad schools. Expensive housing. High taxes. Congestion. They head home to the peace and quiet of the open countryside.

A lot of other Marylanders are headed in the same direction. Hunt Valley. Frederick. Northern Harford and Carroll counties. Southern Maryland. More and more people have moved to the Eastern Shore and cross back over the Bay Bridge to work.

The real growth in this state is no longer occurring in the suburbs bordering Baltimore. Instead it's happening in the once-rural counties beyond the Baltimore metropolitan area.

The same thing is going on all over the United States. An analysis of the 1990 census data prepared by American Demographics, Inc. for the Wall Street Journal has identified the 20 fastest-growing, best-educated and wealthiest counties in the country. Howard County ranked fourth. Between 1980 and 1990, its population grew by 58 percent to 187,000 people. More than 90 percent of county residents over 25 years old have finished high school, and nearly half of them have graduated from college. That's one reason the median annual household income is about $55,000, by far the highest in the state.

Howard County, however, is not just an affluent bedroom community. It's developed its own independent economic base: 80,000 jobs. Ten-story office buildings in downtown Columbia. Business, office and research parks. Technology companies. Within the last ten years the number of residents working within the county has more than doubled.

This economic independence is going to increase. American Demographics predicts that places like Howard County are ''the major growth centers of tomorrow.'' More and more technology companies. More and more high-paying jobs.

This independence represents a serious challenge to Baltimore. The city's problems require regional support from the surrounding counties. But the demographic trends are undermining the sense that we all belong to the same region.

Chances are that young executives who leave their offices in Co- lumbia and drive home to their families in Clarksville every night don't think of themselves as either working or living in Greater Baltimore. Even if they do go into the city to see the Orioles or take the kids to Harborplace, they probably feel and act like tourists.

Effective regionalism, however, requires some sense of regional identity. It also requires a persuasive argument that common cooperative solutions to urban problems will generate benefits that flow both in and out of the city. But that argument becomes harder to make as Central Maryland looks less like one metropolitan area.

More and more people in places like Howard County seem to think of Baltimore as a big sink-hole that doesn't have anything to do with their jobs or families. And they vote for state legislators who feel that way, too.

The same thing is happening elsewhere in the country. But in Maryland this national trend is aggravated by the fact that Montgomery and Prince George's Counties already face and identify with Washington instead of Baltimore.

These demographics confront Baltimore with a crucial tactical decision in this year's democratic primary for the next governor.

In that election the city ought to throw its political contributions and its votes behind whichever one of the candidates has the best chance to persuade the young affluent voters in Howard County and the rest of the Baltimore-Washington corridor that continued and even increased financial support for the city makes sense for the region as a whole.

That argument can best be made by a candidate who is not identified with the city. Therefore, Baltimore's best strategy requires it to abandon the candidates closest to home, even the ones to whom it should feel the most loyalty for their long-standing support.

As for those candidates who hail from the Washington suburbs, let them come over to Baltimore and compete among themselves for the city's votes. If Baltimore plays it smart, it can decide the election and end up with a candidate with credibility in the counties and a commitment to the city.

Tim Baker is a lawyer who lives in Columbia.

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