Montgomery County leads state in jobs Jurisdiction surpassed Baltimore in 1996

January 18, 1998|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN STAFF

For about two centuries, Baltimore was the hub of Maryland commerce, a lode of jobs and income that powered the state's economy and dominated its hinterland.

Not anymore.

Sometime in 1996, Montgomery County, lawn-upholstered haven of lobbyists, federal contractors and biotech firms, overtook Baltimore as Maryland's No. 1 job reservoir.

Montgomery, just outside Washington, had 388,661 jobs in the first three months of 1997, the latest period for which data is available. Baltimore, the once-mighty entrepot of shipping, immigration and manufacturing, had 376,180.

Neither figure was adjusted for seasonal factors, which is why average annual employment for both places is reported at around 15,000 jobs higher.

But whatever the measurement, Montgomery is tops in jobs.

"Montgomery is now 12,000 ahead of Baltimore City," said Michael Funk, an economist with the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University. "When you have one jurisdiction that was going south for seven consecutive years and another that was definitely growing above the state average," the switch should not be surprising, he added.

The new order yields no substantial effect other than bragging rights for Montgomery and the usual benefits or drawbacks of growing or stagnant economies.

But it draws new attention to a trend that has been transforming Maryland's economy for years now and will continue to do so: Suburbs outside both Washington and Baltimore have become formidable engines of commerce.

In the last year, "the strongest growth has been in the Maryland suburbs of D.C., and the greatest improvement has come in the Baltimore suburbs," said Mark Vitner, an economist with First Union Corp., a Charlotte, N.C.-based banking company.

Overall, Maryland has been adding jobs at about a 2 percent or 2.2 percent annual pace. Now that it has recovered from the federal shutdown two years ago, and now that fears of drastic federal downsizing have evaporated, Montgomery is growing faster than the state overall, economists said.

As a whole, in Baltimore's suburbs of Howard, Anne Arundel, Harford, Baltimore and Carroll counties are growing by about 2 percent annually -- about the same rate as the entire state and a marked improvement from their earlier performance. But some counties are doing better than others.

Although Baltimore City is only treading water in job growth, "all the surrounding counties are doing very well," Funk said.

"Most of them have been growing much more rapidly than the state. The exceptions would be Anne Arundel and Baltimore County. Growth has been kind of weak in Anne Arundel, and Baltimore County is still growing slightly below the state. But Carroll, Harford, Howard and Queen Anne's have been growing very rapidly."

The federal government considers Queen Anne's County as part of the Baltimore metro area.

Harford, northeast of Baltimore, has benefited from population growth and its position athwart Interstate 95, where numerous goods distributors have built cavernous, high-tech warehouses to serve the East Coast.

Carroll, northwest of Baltimore, and Howard, southwest of the city, are also rapidly adding residents. Combined with the fact that Baltimore City continues to lose population, the change will generate massive political effects when election districts are redrawn after the 2000 census.

That may worsen tensions among the city, its immediate suburban neighbors and the politically powerful Washington suburbs of Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Recently, for example, Howard and Montgomery have found themselves competing for the same employers in some cases.

"A lot of the relationships in the region and around the state are characterized by animosity and rivalry," said Ioanna Morfessis, chief executive of the Greater Baltimore Alliance, a group that promotes business growth in the region. "We need to work together."

For its part, Howard is building a strong base of computer consultants, communications concerns and other high-tech firms, activity that mirrors what's going on in Montgomery, next door.

"What's driving the economy here are the technology industries," said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan. "We're the technology center for the state of Maryland."

Faster growth has led to tight employment and real estate markets in the suburbs, and companies frequently complain that they can't find enough qualified help.

Office vacancies have plunged, and for the first time in years office buildings are going up in Howard and Baltimore counties without having first been substantially leased out.

In November, the most recent month for which statistics are available, unemployment in Howard County was only 2.7 percent; in Anne Arundel, 3.4 percent; in Carroll, 3 percent; and ,, in Montgomery, 2.4 percent. All are far below the U.S. and statewide jobless rates.

But some employers still rate Maryland highly for worker quality and availability.

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