Western Maryland still emerging from isolation 700 jobs will help: Officials of Maryland's three western counties say there are niches in which their depressed area can prosper in the new economy.

April 18, 1996|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,SUN STAFF

Forty years ago, two roads diverged near Western Maryland's woods. The state's westernmost counties got the one less traveled by, and that, as they say, has made all the difference.

In the glow of Staples Inc.'s announcement Monday that it will build a distribution center in Hagerstown and create 700 jobs, Western Maryland may seem to be on the march. The region is so thinly populated that it would take only 3,750 jobs to pull its unemployment rate down to the national average, and 700 just arrived in one deal.

But the three counties that make up Western Maryland -- Garrett, Washington and Allegany -- didn't see their economic problems evaporate with Staples' arrival. Still recovering from January's announcement that Bausch & Lomb Inc. plans to close its 600-job sunglass lens plant in Oakland, they remain much poorer and still have far higher unemployment than Maryland's population centers in the Baltimore-Washington corridor.

Worse, they still have many of the problems that helped place the three counties among Maryland's poorest. There still is not a major north-south highway in Maryland west of Hagerstown; no airport capable of supporting much of modern commerce; and Frostburg State University is the only major college west of Frederick, a key factor in building a work force for the information age.

In some ways, the region is still feeling the impact of a decision made in the Eisenhower administration. Early in planning the interstate highway system, officials decided to make I-70 turn north at Hancock, in eastern Allegany County, to meet up with the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Thus isolated, Western Maryland fell behind, and in many ways remains there.

"It singularly stands out as one of the turning points for Western Maryland," said House of Delegates Speaker Casper R. Taylor, Jr., a Cumberland Democrat who is the senior state official from Western Maryland. "It kept my economy from keeping pace with the rest of the state. It took away an enormous amount of opportunity for me and everyone else who lives up there."

Today, Western Maryland's unemployment rate is 8.9 percent, far above Maryland's 5 percent rate. Even that may understate the problem: jobless rates are held down both by an unusually high number of people who don't even look for work and the number of young people who leave.

The jobs Western Marylanders hold are much different than statewide. Western Maryland has practically no federal employment -- a high-paying mainstay of Maryland's economy -- and many fewer jobs in high-paying business services. Instead, it has 50 percent more of its workers in manufacturing than Maryland's average, an emerging presence in the lower end of information-related businesses such as telemarketing centers, and a growing tourist industry.

The result: Incomes are closer to West Virginia's than Maryland's. Half of Maryland's families make more than $44,600 a year. More than half of the families in Allegany and Garrett counties make less than $25,000, and more prosperous Washington County families have a median income of $33,200. West Virginia's median family income is $32,361 -- last among the 50 states, according to the U.S. Census.

Statistics such as these are why more than one expert has suggested that, economically speaking, Western Maryland is more like neighboring West Virginia than like Maryland, the fifth-richest state in the nation. "We don't want you to say that [but] we don't look anything like Maryland," said Peggy Dalton, an economist at Frostburg State. "The state analysis doesn't look anything like us. We don't show up in the statistics."

Economists and economic-development professionals debate whether Western Maryland has what it takes to prosper in the emerging economy, or whether growing concentration of jobs in service sectors of the economy -- and the high-tech nature of even manufacturing sectors that are growing in the United States, such as steel and semiconductors -- means that Western Maryland will fall even further behind.

"Generally, research and development centers don't look at rural areas," said Walter H. Plosila, a former president of the Suburban Maryland Technology Council who now runs the North Carolina Alliance for Competitive Technologies. "Why do science centers have to be in urban areas? Scientists can think anywhere. The answer is, that's where educated people live."

Spokesmen for semiconductor makers Intel Corp. and Motorola Inc., two companies leading one of the fastest-growing sectors in American manufacturing, told much the same story. Both said they have passed over rural areas in favor of the outskirts of urban areas, where they have an easier time attracting %o technically oriented or even college-educated production workers.

But F. Kenneth Iverson, chairman of Nucor Inc., said his company considered Western Maryland for a steel plant before choosing a South Carolina location, and would consider Maryland again in the future.

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