Report gives local economy good marks Business, government leaders more optimistic

March 20, 1997|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

A surging real estate and retail market combined with continued job growth has Howard County business and government leaders more optimistic than they've been in years about the local economy.

The March issue of "Howard County Economic Indicators" -- a four-page quarterly review of economic data, analysis and hunches -- shows strength throughout most parts of the economy, including banking, personal services, construction and home sales.

"It's probably the most optimistic report we've put out," said county Budget Administrator Raymond Wacks.

Several county officials and the private Howard County Economic Forum created the report in fall of 1994 as an early-warning system for the next recession.

Wacks said the growth in the county economy comes from greater stability with the federal budget and the local banking industry, which saw heavy restructuring for several years. But he warned that troubles are not over.

"Just because it's the most upbeat doesn't mean we're in a boom period," Wacks said. "Things are better than [they] were."

Robert Riva, an economist with the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson State University, offered a brighter picture.

He said 30 percent of Howard's jobs pay more than $40,000 a year, but 60 percent of the new jobs created in the past year pay that much. The service and wholesale sectors of the economy are particularly strong.

"What we're seeing over the last year is tremendous growth in high-wage industries," Riva said.

Meanwhile, Howard's real estate market has improved. Thirty percent more resale homes were sold in 1996 than 1995, the report says. Homes costing less than $200,000 are selling best. Sales of luxury homes in the $450,000 range are lagging badly.

Revenues are slow to reflect improvements in the real estate market because Howard reassesses only a third of the county each year. But a more immediately sensitive measure, the real estate transfer tax, was 34 percent higher in January over last January, reversing years of stagnation.

Other report highlights:

Retailers reported optimism after a strong Christmas season. Office supplies and furniture are selling well. Changes in federal procurement procedures suggest the good days will continue.

Commercial real estate vacancies continue to be low, to the point that large businesses are looking outside the county to expand and several new large office buildings are the works in and around Columbia.

Banks have seen a five-fold increase in requests for small-business loans.

Residential construction had record sales in January, and February may be even better.

Pub Date: 3/20/97

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