Staying home is trend in trade

More residents mix rural lifestyle with businesses

`Reverse work ethic'

July 25, 1999|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

Kathy Johnson began spending weekends in bucolic southern Anne Arundel County in 1986 to get away from her hectic life as a buyer for a Washington floral company.

As time passed, her weekend visits to a tiny Churchton house near the water grew longer and longer, and she began plotting a permanent move from Chevy Chase. In 1990, she quit her job, bought the Churchton house and set up a home-based massage-therapy business.

"The stress was just getting to me," said Johnson, 51. "In Chevy Chase, you have a lot of attorneys, a lot of people working long hours, coming home at 11 o'clock and working weekends, so they have no time or energy to make friends with their neighbors. Here, it's a different lifestyle."

Johnson's escape into rural southern Anne Arundel County has been repeated over and over in recent years by professionals from Baltimore and Washington -- enough so that the commercial complexion of this cozy community of watermen and farmers has been transformed.

In the past five years, the number of home-based businesses registered with the Southern Anne Arundel Chamber of Commerce has more than doubled, from 25 to 70, said Janet Beckner, executive director. Most of the businesses have sprung up in the more densely populated areas in South County such as Deale and Edgewater. And the businesses have become more diverse, she said.

While the term "home-based business" used to encompass building contractors, plumbers and chimney sweeps, the new generation is white-collar -- organizational development consultants, computer consultants, accountants, even an environmental specialist, a speech therapist and an Arabic translator and researcher.

The home-business spurt echoes a nationwide trend, said Larry Brockman, president of the Salt Lake City-based American Home Business Association. Forty million Americans work from home today, a number he said has doubled in 10 years.

The onslaught of downsizing, mergers, acquisitions and job instability in 1980s corporate America inspired many professionals to leave the rat race, he said.

"There's a whole new generation of people 45 and up who are working at home," Brockman said. "In 1976, when I was starting out, if you told people you worked from home, they would think, `You're a flake.' But now it's cool."

Johnson offered another reason for the South County spurt: "reverse work ethic."

"This kind of place works on you," said Johnson, who this year closed her massage business to open Broadwater Consulting Group, which advises companies on human resources management.

"People come [for weekends] from Washington and Annapolis, and at first they want to put up fences and they want to organize everything -- that's the kind of people they are. And then gradually these people start mellowing, and you see them changing to a four-day workweek. Then they start working from home a little more, or they start coming home a little earlier to check the crab pots. Then they quit and start their own business.

"I always say, in South County, we have a reverse work ethic, and we're proud of it," said Johnson.

John Osborne, 41, a former engineer who built security systems for banks, epitomizes Johnson's theory. When he and his wife, Debbi, moved from Annapolis to Mayo in 1990, Osborne had an epiphany.

A plant-lover since childhood who had amassed 250 plants, Osborne decided to quit his job to work for an interior landscaping firm in Gaithersburg. But there remained a problem -- he still had a commute. He loathed driving to work so much he developed occasional chest pains.

"You're flying down the road at 70 miles per hour, wondering when you're going to get cut off next, or who's the next guy who's going to be hitting the brakes," Osborne said. "My whole body just tensed up. Somebody said to me once, `People are being domesticated like cattle. They're all herded out to work in the morning, and then they're herded back into apartments at the end of the day.' And that's how I felt. Deep down, I was miserable."

Finally, two years ago, Osborne bought Annapolis-based Chesapeake Plants, moved from Mayo farther south to Tracys Landing and based his business at his new home on 30 acres of wooded land.

Today, he putters around two greenhouses mere yards from his front door from dawn until dusk, growing Venus' flytraps and 150 kinds of cactuses that he sells to Washington- and Baltimore-area florists. His wife drives 40 minutes to her job as Chesapeake regional director for the National Trust for Public Land in Washington.

It takes more than starting a home business to fully live the dream. Many South County entrepreneurs say their locale is part of the fantasy life they've carved out for themselves.

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