In county job growth, region is the winner


March 01, 1998|By NORRIS WEST

CHUCK ECKER regularly trumpets the job growth Howard County has experienced in recent years.

Job creation has become a campaign theme for the county executive, who is playing David to Ellen R. Sauerbrey's Goliath in the Republican gubernatorial primary race.

Beyond all else, Mr. Ecker has advertised himself as one of the state's most business-friendly elected officials. His philosophy to appease the commercial sector is an unabashedly trickle-down form of economics that would make Ronald Reagan smile.

Take care of business, and business will take care of the county by providing jobs and tax revenues, the thinking goes.

Last summer, Mr. Ecker's administration brought proof of his success, as he trotted out figures showing the county's economic strength since the year he became executive. The data were stunning.

From 1990 to 1996, Howard County had added 19,877 jobs, according to figures from the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

Baltimore County was a distant second, managing 13,159 new jobs during that period, which, coincidentally, began about the time Mr. Ecker became county executive. Frederick County trailed Baltimore County by 23 new jobs, a virtual dead heat for second place.

"I think we can make this a business-friendly state," Mr. Ecker said at the time. "I've done this in Howard County. I think I can do it in the state."

Ecker not amused

So Mr. Ecker was not amused when Baltimore County laid claim to being the top jurisdiction for job creation in a front-page story in The Sun on Feb. 18.

The article, "Balto. County leads a boom," reported that Baltimore County gained more jobs than any of its counterparts from 1994 to July 1997 -- 22,453 new jobs, to be exact.

Mr. Ecker was not alone in disputing Baltimore County's proclaimed first-place status. In a letter to the editor Tuesday in The Sun, Drew Dedrick, a Montgomery County planning official, said his county was the job-creation leader in 1996-1997.

In his own letter to the editor, not written on county letterhead, Mr. Ecker responded, "The truth of the matter is that Baltimore County and Montgomery County can duke it out over who is second in the number of net new jobs, because Howard County is No. 1."

All three jurisdictions are correct in laying claim to being first. It just depends on which time frames are used.

Or, if you look at the picture another way -- the percentage increase from 1990 to 1996 -- Calvert County can stake its claim XTC as state leader. Jobs in Calvert rose by 53 percent over that span.

"All of these counties involved in these discussions are doing very well," said Michael Funk, an economist at the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University, "but they don't want to be No. 2. They want to be No. 1."

Mr. Funk said Montgomery County is the leader in the total number of jobs, as it has been since displacing Baltimore from a title it owned for two centuries.

Montgomery also added the most jobs between the last quarter of 1995 and the last quarter of 1996, he said.

But Montgomery is only in the middle of the pack when it comes to the percentage of increase during that period, while Howard County ranks No. 2.

First in that category? St. Mary's County.

Other jurisdictions may be able to claim leadership in job growth by looking at economic development from other perspectives. Each prefers the figures that give it the highest standing.

Mr. Ecker made that point in taking issue with claims by Baltimore and Montgomery counties.

"Maybe they're looking at one quarter, but over the long haul we've done the job," he said.

It is important to note that neither Howard nor any other jurisdiction has done the job alone. All benefit from regional and statewide efforts to attract companies and jobs.

The state finally has emerged from a long economic slumber to keep pace with the nation.

Maryland created 40,000 jobs last year and is expected to create another 40,000 in 1998.

This is a remarkable turnaround. From 1989 to 1996, Maryland created only one-fifth as many jobs per year.

Stores in a mall

Richard Story, executive director of Howard County's Economic Development Authority, likens the region to a shopping mall, and jurisdictions to the stores in it. His philosophy is to get shoppers into the mall first, then lure them into his store.

To be sure, being No. 1 is less important than being part of a prosperous region.

So although being first in job growth, by one measure, is a good campaign theme for Mr. Ecker in his long-shot candidacy, it is not the most important thing to Howard countians.

There is more to gain by cooperating with neighbors than by competing with them for bragging rights.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 3/01/98

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