Suburbs keep pace with rest of state

Good mix of industries, past year's performance all bode well for 1999

January 24, 1999|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,Sun Staff

Baltimore's suburbs are steaming along with the rest of Maryland, adding jobs, erecting buildings, attracting income.

"They seem to have weathered the long dry spell of the early to mid-'90s, and they seem to be growing at a healthy pace," said Charles McMillion, chief economist for MBG Information Services, a forecasting and business consulting firm in Washington. "They seem to have a good mix of industries, and they're well-positioned for a good year, so long as the financial markets hold."

Economically more similar to Maryland as a whole than Baltimore City, the counties of Howard, Harford, Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Carroll stayed in the same pattern last year. Economists predict Maryland will have increased jobs by more than 2 percent when final figures arrive for 1998, and they expect similar results for Baltimore's suburbs.

As a whole, metropolitan Baltimore "is at least growing as fast as the nation is, if not faster," said Mark Vitner, an economist who follows the area for First Union Corp., a Charlotte, N.C.-based banking company. "The outlying areas are still doing much better than the city is."

He added, "we would have more jobs if we could find the people to work in them."

Low unemployment has become a major constraint on growth in Baltimore's suburbs. While joblessness in the city remains relatively high at 8.2 percent, it's scraping rock bottom in Howard County, at 2.5 percent. Unemployment is 4.5 percent in Baltimore County and 3.2 percent in Anne Arundel.

"This whole issue about the work force always crops up," said Robert Hannon, economic development director for Baltimore County.

Even so, people cite changing commuting patterns as something of a safety valve for labor-force pressures. With their economies reviving from sluggishness earlier in the decade, Baltimore's suburbs may be exporting fewer workers to jobs in Montgomery County, Washington and Virginia.

"We are finding people" to fill jobs, said Richard Morgan, chief executive of the Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp. "We still have thousands of workers that live here and work in other counties and would like to stop commuting." He added, "we've had an 80 percent increase in workers that live somewhere else and now are commuting to jobs inside the county."

Morgan cited the newly completed Route 100, connecting Anne Arundel and Howard counties, as aiding worker access and fueling growth in both those areas. The germ of Anne Arundel's activity is the area around Baltimore-Washington International Airport, where not just office space but hundreds of hotel rooms have been created. In other parts of the region, Harford County has been successful in landing large distribution centers along its Interstate 95 spine, and those operations are aiding job growth. Hunt Valley in Baltimore County is also a focus of growth, as is Owings Mills.

Growth in Baltimore's suburbs this year depends on how the country does.

Many economists expect a slowdown, and if that happens they expect deceleration here, as well.

Metro Baltimore "is changing, evolving, still coming up from more of a manufacturing-based economy," said Ann Battle, an economist who follows Maryland for Crestar Bank, based in Richmond, Va. "In some ways, that transition has maybe been a little bit slower for Baltimore. That's part of why this year you'll maybe see a slowdown, but they'll be right up there with the country, and that's better than lagging the country."

New jobs in the Baltimore suburbs span the spectrum -- and that's good news, reducing the region's dependence on an individual industry. Consulting, computer services, engineering, accounting and other business-service companies are swelling to meet the needs not only of a newly flush federal government but also of biotech firms and other fast-growing companies.

Developer Phil Dunn is putting up a 40,000-square-foot office building in Annapolis and has had no shortage of prospective tenants.

"We have had a tremendous response as we have got the steel up," Dunn said. "We're seeing a lot of start-up companies and expanding companies. We're seeing high-tech, computer, some energy companies. It'll be leased. It'll be leased in a matter of weeks."

Job growth and profitable businesses -- not to mention a soaring stock market -- have increased personal income in Baltimore's suburbs, which are some of the most desirable markets for retailers in the country.

"Per capita income is high," said McMillion. "Unless and until the stock market really tanks, there are a lot of folks who have enormous capital gains. So the wealth effect in Maryland -- really, throughout this region -- is really quite strong."

Pub Date: 01/24/99

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