Four corridor counties feel effects of downturn

Office vacancy rate climbs in Howard

November 09, 2001|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

Economic development officials from four Maryland counties said yesterday that they are starting to see the effects of a depressed economy, from vacant hotel rooms and office buildings to jumps in unemployment rates.

Officials from Prince George's, Howard, Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties, at a gathering to talk about the economic health of their communities, shared how they're dealing with the worst economic slowdown in nearly a decade.

The Baltimore-Washington Corridor Chamber of Commerce, which promotes business opportunities in the four counties, brings the executives together every year. Yesterday's event was held at the BWI Sheraton International Hotel.

Maryland is doing better than the rest of the country in the weakening economic climate, according to state officials and economists, but the four counties are feeling the impact all the same.

Prince George's County has experienced a double-digit drop in hotel occupancy rates. Howard County is bracing for an office building vacancy rate that could reach as high as 14 percent by the end of the year.

Unemployment in Anne Arundel County rose from 2.8 percent the second quarter this year, to 3.3 percent in September, county officials said. Montgomery County's unemployment rate was at 2.6 percent in September, up from 1.5 percent during the summer, an official of that county said.

"We are definitely participating in the nation's recession," said Richard Story, chief executive officer of the Howard County Economic Development Authority.

State officials said they're seeing similar patterns throughout Maryland. David Iannucci, secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, said retail sales are down everywhere, and the state's hospitality and tourism industry is still reeling from a slowdown in travel since the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

"If retail sales are down, that means tax revenues are going to be down, too," Iannucci said.

But rather than dwell on the losses, Iannucci said the state is trying to be aggressive in helping to boost the economy. The state has tripled the tourism advertising budget to $1.2 million in an effort to attract more visitors, a move Iannucci said has resulted in an increase in day trips.

"We have to be ready for when the inevitable happens, and the nation's economy takes a change of course," Iannucci said.

County officials are following suit, placing their focus on how to keep conditions stable for when the economy improves.

For example, Story said he will boost marketing efforts to try and convince businesses to move to Howard County.

Said Robert McGlotten, senior vice president of the Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp.: "We like to see ourselves as having strength in times of uncertainty."

Ed Grimm, marketing director of the Montgomery County Economic Development Authority, said his office is letting people know that Maryland is still a good place to do business.

"We need to send a message that we are not down and out," he said. "We may have been hit, but we are not down and out."

Maryland has some characteristics that state and county officials hope will help shield it somewhat from the weak economic environment. The state has a highly educated and skilled work force that can still attract companies. Also, the federal government accounts for 7 percent of all activity in Maryland's $185 billion state economy.

"Maryland's fundamental economic statistics are strong and resilient," Iannucci said.

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