Baltimore-D.C. marriage at risk

One market or two? Decision hinges on commuter numbers

February 20, 2002|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

For decades, the Washington and Baltimore areas have been yoked together.

Washingtonians use Baltimore's baseball team, airport and Inner Harbor aquarium as their own. Baltimoreans head to Washington to watch Michael Jordan and Jaromir Jagr play at the MCI Center, and residents of Montgomery and Prince George's counties shop in Columbia or Annapolis nearly as often as they shop near their homes.

Ten years ago, the federal government gave its blessing to the union, putting the two cities and their outlying suburbs together statistically, and reporting on the area as one super-size market.

But within the next few months, there is a long-shot possibility that the federal government will annul the Baltimore-Washington marriage, breaking the regional footprint into two distinctly separate areas.

The issue that could break up Baltimore and Washington is the same issue that brought them together a decade ago - how many people hop into cars and onto trains weekday mornings to get from one territory to the next.

Census data, due out in the spring, will show the level of commuting between the two cities and their suburbs, and the federal Office of Management and Budget will use those numbers to determine where Baltimore belongs.

But what's at risk as OMB draws lines in the sand across the country, economic development leaders say, is how the world sees us and how we see ourselves.

Baltimore-Washington is the fourth-largest consumer market in the country, based on the 1990 data. Apart, Washington is eighth and Baltimore is 19th.

"For Howard and Anne Arundel, we could either be on the periphery of two markets or we could be the bull's-eye eye of the bi-metropolitan target," said Richard W. Story, executive director of the Howard County Economic Development Authority, which has spearheaded efforts to make others in the region aware of the impending decision.

"We liken this [area] to a regional mall with two anchors," Story said. "As everyone knows, a regional mall has more drawing power than a shopping center."

A breakup wouldn't likely change life for those who already live here. But it would mean government agencies would cease to print combined statistics for the area when it measures everything from health care and work force to education and jobs.

And economic development leaders fear that would lead to both cities being overlooked as businesses search for major population centers to relocate, even as Baltimore and Washington are singing the praises of their marriage in making a joint bid for the 2012 Olympic Games.

That fear is especially true in Howard and Anne Arundel counties - the portion of Baltimore's suburbs that benefit most from proximity to the nation's capital, and the places the state presents to its most sought-after international industries.

There's a good chance that Baltimore-Washington will remain a joint market just as it has for the past 10 years.

Most state and local officials are certain that there is not enough cross-commuting in the region to reach the 25 percent threshold that would automatically combine the two districts. But the minimum, raised in December from 10 percent to 15 percent, is high enough to give some officials pause.

"It's going to be very close," said Michael R. Ratcliffe, a geographer in the population division of the Census Bureau. "The general feeling is that [the data] is going to be sufficient, but we can't say for certain, so there's a possibility that [Baltimore and Washington] won't combine."

In 1990, census figures showed that 12.9 percent of area workers commuted between the two metropolitan areas. But it took agreement among federal legislators and the local business community for OMB - which creates the criteria for statistical areas and defines them - to approve combining the areas. Then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer was a chief supporter of the effort.

The official purpose of statistical areas is to help the government track information within the boundaries: For example, how many professional employees reside within the area, what percentage of the population holds multiple degrees, what is the average price of a new home and how many jobs there are. OMB will announce its new statistical areas next year.

Businesses use the data for many purposes - from determining how much it should cost to run an advertisement in a particular town to which size of lettering to use for a city's name on a map.

Some site-location consultants, whose job it is to help companies find a place to relocate, say separation would not be a death knell for the region when it comes to attracting new companies, but it could hurt. Although professional consultants may look beyond the government's definitions, two-thirds of companies that relocate do not use consultants, according to Dennis J. Donovan, principal of the Wadley-Donovan Group, a New Jersey based corporate relocation consulting firm.

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