Baltimore's job gloom starts to brighten

The Economy

March 03, 1997|By Jay Hancock

Raynard Alexander started his Baltimore catering company a year ago. It's called Ordinary People's Cafe and Catering.

Now he's cooking, packing lunches and scaring up business even while he's working part-time on a business degree at the University of Baltimore. He has two employees.

Such are the economic strivings of Baltimore.

At the end of 1996, the city had 406,100 people working within its borders, according to the latest data from the U.S. Labor Department. That's 100 fewer than it had a year previously.

Washington, meanwhile, lost 10,000 jobs, 1.6 percent of its employment base, last year.

Baltimore is not in danger of clogging its streets with workers. But neither is it exporting jobs to Timonium and Mexico at the rate it once was. The city lost 60,000 jobs between 1989 and 1994. Most of the shedding came in the 1991 recession, but Baltimore lost 10,000 jobs in 1992, 7,000 in 1993, 4,000 in 1994 and 3,000 in 1995.

Last year it lost 100. The figure is subject to scrutiny and revision this spring, but the trend to a firmer Baltimore employment base seems clear.

Is this the bottom?

Maybe. At least for a while.

Tuesday Gov. Parris N. Glendening signed a "brownfields" bill. Now factory and warehouse operators can build on Baltimore's hundreds of vacant acres without worrying about getting sued for pollution spilled by predecessors. That fear had brought movement of industrial jobs to the city to a virtual halt.

Now Baltimore can capitalize on its natural advantage as Maryland's navel, linked by superb transit lines to everywhere.

Two weeks ago, Sylvan Learning Systems dedicated its new headquarters in Inner Harbor East, in one of Baltimore's empowerment zones. With 300 employees and plans to add another 300, Sylvan is the first major public corporation to move downtown in two decades.

Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development agency, has reorganized, refocused and started looking for private capital to help boost Baltimore's prospects. City business people still complain occasionally about BDC, but the agency is not the magnet for ire that it was a few years ago.

It looks as if ground will be broken late this year or early next for a major downtown hotel. Two other partial-service hotels are expected by the end of the decade, too. Baltimore's bigger, better Convention Center requires thousands more nearby beds. The new football stadium means construction jobs now and fall tourism jobs later.

Baltimore still has 30,000 manufacturing jobs -- almost as many as its banking, investment banking, insurance and real estate businesses combined. That's more than a sixth of the factory jobs in all Maryland.

Baltimore manufacturing was hammered in the last recession. But economists such as Patrick Arnold, director of labor market analysis for Maryland's Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, believe that the state's factories will prove hardier in the next downturn.

Like the rest of U.S. industry, they're tougher now. They've invested huge amounts in machines and computers. Their unit costs are down. More of them are figuring out how to export.

Such healthy city employment is good for Raynard Alexander's catering business; it depends on commercial clients. But he's also managing, in a bootstrap, Baltimore kind of way, to help the city job count himself.

"We're hoping to grow a little bit more," said Alexander, a 27-year-old who used to be in the Air Force. "We have a few ideas of some things we'd like to do, and we may get some more people to help us meet those goals."

Pub Date: 3/03/97

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