Area forecast: more growth, jobs

Regional strength: The Baltimore area's six jurisdictions face varying challenges but appear capable of holding their own in a mild economic slowdown.

January 21, 2001|By William Patalon III | William Patalon III,SUN STAFF

Despite an economic slowdown that's taken root nationwide, the outlook for the Baltimore area is for continued growth and low unemployment in 2001, local economic development officials and economists say.

But that forecast depends heavily on the region's six jurisdictions, since each enjoys its own prospects while also facing unique challenges.

For the region, forays into fiber optics in Howard and Anne Arundel counties should spark area job growth, although that could be tempered by losses of manufacturing jobs in and around Baltimore City. While worker shortages remain acute in Howard County, Carroll County is trying to create new jobs in its area - even with an unemployment rate that hovers around 2.0 percent. Economic development projects such as the $150 million Water's Edge development in Harford County and the newly finished, $200 million Allison Transmission plant in Baltimore County will provide jobs and boost the region, though Allison has already postponed by two years a proposed expansion that would have doubled its size.

Howard County

For a showcase of the inroads the Baltimore region has made into such fast-growing sectors as information technology, look no further than Howard County, which continues to see tremendous growth.

Howard has made itself home to several companies in the fast-growing fiber-optic technology, one of the key niches in telecommunications-equipment business and one that's crucial to continued development of the Internet. Fiber-optic networks are the invitingly wide and blazingly fast highways that should raise the curtain on such services as instant downloads, super-cheap Internet telephone calls and on-demand movies.

Key denizens include Corvis Corp. andTrellis Photonics Ltd.; and Bookham Technology PLC, a British maker of fiber-optic components, said late last year that it would add its North American headquarters to the fiber-optic cluster in and around Howard County.

This growth isn't just a recent manifestation: The county's job base grew by 50 percent in the 1990s, adding 40,000 jobs - a total that was second statewide only to Montgomery County, although percentage-wise Howard was a hands-down winner, said Richard W. Story, chief executive officer for the Howard County Economic Development Authority.

That pace continued in 2000, as the job base grew at a 6 percent clip for the third straight year. With all that activity, it's no surprise that the unemployment rate actually dropped to 1.8 percent in November from 1.9 percent in October - and has been under 2.0 percent for two years running.

"We're running out of workers," Story said.

Nevertheless, with the way Howard County has bulked up its economy, the prognosis for 2001 is for continued growth, experts say.

Anne Arundel County

Not only was the opening of the Arundel Mills mall arguably the biggest story in Anne Arundel County in 2000, it was one of the biggest business stories in the region.

The $250 million mega-mall, which opened its doors in time for the holiday shopping season, gave Anne Arundel an economic shot in the arm during a retail season that in many areas was decidedly lackluster. Nor was that a one-season wonder: The mall's expected 18 million visitors are projected to spend $400 million annually at the retail complex near Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Looking forward, however, the airport itself may be the real economic story in the county, said Bill Badger, president and chief executive officer of Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp.

"The airport region is the largest commercial center in our county," Badger said.

The state unveiled plans in August for a $1.3 billion expansion plan that will add parking facilities, larger concourses, moving sidewalks and road and rail improvements to the airport. That's on top of $500 million already earmarked for BWI improvements.

If passenger traffic increases as anticipated - making that huge investment worthwhile - the airport will create a tremendous economic upside for the county.

As is true of the rest of the region, another crucial storyline for Anne Arundel is the emergence of the telecommunications-equipment sector, anchored by Linthicum-based Ciena Corp., a pioneering company in the fiber-optics technology business. In terms of employment, the transportation and communications sector has been one of the major drivers of growth: Job growth there rocketed 13.6 percent in the first quarter of 2000.

Little wonder the unemployment rate has dropped: It was 2.5 percent in November, down from 2.6 percent in October and 2.6 percent in November 1999.

The new mall, the airport expansion and the telecommunications sector figure to help protect the county against the impact of the mild downturn the U.S. economy is expected to experience in 2001.

Harford County

Like several of the other counties in the region, Harford County last year continued to bulk up its economy.

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