Jobs in metropolitan Baltimore almost doubled between 1965 and 1990. The subsequent quarter-century isn't looking as prosperous, say the economic seers.
"These last few years for Baltimore have been very difficult," said Charles W. McMillion, president of MBG Information Services, a Washington-based economics consulting firm. "Achieving growth and prosperity in the future will not be as easy as it was in the past."
Mr. McMillion joined a panel of experts yesterday holding forth on the business climate in Baltimore and beyond. Together, they drew a picture of U.S. companies and people moving south and west, of overseas corporations reaching for customers across open borders, of shrinking buying power for most Americans.
"The world has changed absolutely, fundamentally," Mr. McMillion told business leaders assembled at the Christopher Columbus Center by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, a group that promotes regional interests. "Our superiority that the United States had over every other country in the world has changed."
Not all the news is bad, of course. Maryland and the country have much to be grateful for, the prognosticators said. Greater Baltimore has 1.11 million jobs. That's 4.0 percent less than in 1990 but 1.2 percent more than in March of last year. They pay well, compared with most other areas of the country.
And the national economy is performing beautifully -- low inflation, healthy growth, falling interest rates, rising productivity.
"The economy really is doing extremely well -- extremely well," said Paul W. Boltz, vice president and financial economist at T. Rowe Price Associates, the Baltimore-based mutual fund company. The recent slowdown is simply the economy going through its natural cycle, Mr. Boltz said, not occasion for gloom.
Nevertheless, Baltimore needs to lower its targets, Mr. McMillion said. People aren't moving here like they used to. Companies aren't hiring here like they used to.
The country will grow by 68 million people by 2020, said Arthur J. Norton, chief of the population division for the U.S. Bureau of the Census. Fully 56 million of them will live in the South and West, he said.
"We need to be ambitious, but we need to be realistically ambitious," Mr. McMillion said.
Baltimore-area companies, he added, "must adjust to more severe price and quality competition, not only from other regions but also from other countries. The competition is not only after your markets, it's after your talent, too. The headhunters have been very active in this region."
Maryland's mixed prospects were reflected in a state-by-state economic report card issued yesterday by the Corporation for Enterprise Development, which studies states' economic development. Maryland scored a lowly "D" in the "business vitality" category, an "A" in the benefits its economy yields for residents and a "B" in its capacity for future growth.
Many of the area's new jobs lately have been in health care and private education -- not the best signs for the economy, Mr. McMillion said. Compared with industries like homebuilding and defense manufacturing, caring for sick people and teaching children outside public schools are "not drivers for the economy," he said.
What the new drivers will be, if there are any, is unclear. Government employment in the region has fallen by 4.3 percent since 1990; manufacturing employment by 19.9 percent.
Hopes are being placed on Baltimore's ownership of what Mr. McMillion called "probably the world's richest resources and talent in life sciences."