City bouncing back with jobs Baltimore managing to limit its losses in employment

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

In the 1990s, economic success for Baltimore has been a matter of limiting its losses.

By that standard, the city is making progress.

Since 1991, the shocking recession year in which Baltimore bled 30,000 jobs, the city has shed smaller and smaller pieces of commerce almost every year.

In 1992, 10,400 jobs disappeared. In 1993, 6,600, and so on, until in 1995 and 1996 the city lost only 3,500 jobs a year, less than 1 percent of its base.

Final tallies for 1997 won't arrive for months, but early reports show that the improvement has continued. For several months last year, in fact, Baltimore booked more jobs than it had 12 months previously.

Last July, for example, the city was home to 408,000 jobs, 4,000 more than in July 1996, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Labor Department. Such improvement, if confirmed by payroll data later, would show that Baltimore "has really had its own little turnaround," said Michael Funk, an economist who follows the city for the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University.

But it's too early to credit Baltimore with its first sustained job growth since 1989.

Much of the city's positive showing in 1997 came in the winter and spring, which look good only because they're compared to an abnormally weak period the year previously. In early 1996, Maryland was recovering from two severe snowstorms and a federal government shutdown, which temporarily depressed employment.

Available figures show renewed small job declines in Baltimore for August through October, although results for November, made available this month, moved back into positive territory.

"Baltimore City had a good end of 1996 and a good early- to mid-1997, but it looks like there's a slowdown in the last few months," said Charles McMillion, chief economist for MBG Information Services in Washington.

It's clear that the healthy Maryland economy has rubbed off to some degree on Baltimore, although the city is far from sharing in the full degree of the state's prosperity.

"The improvements start with more stability in both the national and the state economy," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's quasi-public economic development agency. "And anybody would not be wise to suggest that they are not important."

Baltimore compares favorably in jobs to its Mid-Atlantic competitors, Philadelphia and Washington.

Proportionally, Philadelphia's employment performance has closely tracked Baltimore's for most of this decade, and recent results are no exception. Like Baltimore, Philadelphia has recently stopped job losses and some months actually posts increases of a few thousand positions.

Washington, on the other hand, continues its pain. The District of Columbia now has about 613,000 jobs, almost 10,000 fewer than a year ago.

Among Baltimore's bright spots are continued development downtown. The Ravens football stadium is under construction. The convention center recently expanded. A full-service, luxury hotel is the subject of intense political wrangling but is expected to start going up soon. Restaurants are opening. People are talking about another retail complex, to complement Harborplace, near the Ravens stadium and Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Almost all the city's "class A" office space is leased, and "there's almost the possibility of a new office building start in the next year or so," Brodie said. "And we certainly wouldn't have said that two years ago."

Downtown's older, less desirable "class B" offices are doing considerably less well. In fact, vacancies have jumped past 25 percent, and the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore said last month that the trend threatens "the long-term survival of the traditional and historic central business district."

Brodie and downtown business people suggest that some class B offices will be converted into apartment buildings and some torn down to make room for parking lots.

"The city is addressing its core parking problem, which some people believed didn't exist," Brodie said. "We intend to be working with them to produce some major garages in the next couple years."

Beyond downtown, other small positive signs show up.

The number of city home sales has risen for five consecutive months. And in November, the most recent period for which statistics are available, city home sales soared 27 percent compared with November 1996.

Jobwise, Baltimore has benefited as much as anything from the fact that its weakest sectors have stopped their plunges.

Several Baltimore-based banks, for example, were been acquired and downsized by out-of-state corporations in recent years; the only ones of any size that remain are Mercantile Bankshares Corp. and Provident Bankshares Corp. The recession weeded out the most inefficient and debt-hobbled Baltimore manufacturers; many that remain have retooled, slimmed down and forged successfully into the world economy.

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