Baltimore-Washington marriage is in danger

10-year uniting of areas awaits decision this year by OMB on continuation

March 16, 2003|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

The marriage between Baltimore and Washington that created the nation's fourth-largest market is in danger of being torn apart this year.

Although that might sound good to the Baltimoreans still upset over the forced union in 1992, the move could have implications beyond regional pride.

The amount of federal funding a community receives is, in some cases, based on whether a county is in or out of a metropolitan area. And splitting Baltimore and Washington also could decrease the Baltimore area's chances of attracting large corporations for economic development, investment and jobs - especially in suburban counties such as Howard and Anne Arundel.

The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) must define metropolitan areas across the country by June, combining those cities in close proximity to one another that share resources, jobs and workers and that want to be marketed together, and tearing apart others that no longer have such strong ties.

The process is one that OMB tackles every 10 years, based on commuting data from the census.

Locally, Washington-Baltimore could be separated or, if it remains united, Baltimore could bump Washington for top billing.

The problem is that OMB has asked local members of Congress to weigh in on the topic, and it has received only one letter urging that the union continue and the name remain the same. For this process, a census official said, no response is the same as asking for a divorce.

"We will only combine if they both tell us they want to be combined," said Michael R. Ratcliffe, a geographer in the population division of the Census Bureau who also advises a committee that will give recommendations to OMB. "If one or the other does not respond ... then there will be no combination, according to the standards."

Although Baltimore and Washington were joined 10 years ago, cities have to renew their vows every decade, Ratcliffe said, because opinions change. Furthermore, OMB's standards and definitions for metropolitan areas have changed - a factor that also may affect the way federal agencies such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development, whose community development block grants are tied to OMB's designations, use the data.

That makes updated local opinion critical to the process.

"We want our opinions to reflect the responses or nonresponses of today, not what people said 10 years ago," Ratcliffe said.

Failing to establish a strong regional market could have economic consequences for communities from Northern Virginia to south-central Pennsylvania - the total area that would be the Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area if every community that had the opportunity chose to join it.

Several federal agencies base their spending on whether a community is in or out of a metropolitan area, Ratcliffe said. For example, he said, an area's Medicaid reimbursement rates to hospitals would be affected, as would a community's eligibility for certain HUD Community Development Block Grants.

Marketers and business leaders also use city rankings to appraise a market when deciding things like where to move their business, or whether to open a new plant.

Fourth-largest

As a combined area, the Washington-Baltimore market would remain the fourth-largest in the United States based on 2000 census data. Separately, Washington would be eighth and Baltimore 19th or 20th, depending on whether other cities separate or combine, Ratcliffe said.

If the market is split, Baltimore particularly would lose out, said Dennis J. Donovan, principal of the Wadley-Donovan Group, a New Jersey corporate relocation consulting firm.

"What [combining] allows is a degree of authenticity - a sanctioned body says Baltimore is a contiguous part of the Washington region," he said. "Statistically, if Baltimore is included ... it automatically gets on the radar for companies wanting to locate new facilities in the D.C. region. I can't see any benefit to Baltimore to have them split up. It's going to hurt the economic development for Baltimore and Washington, more for Baltimore than for Washington."

And should the market be split, Howard and Anne Arundel counties would lie on the outskirts of both, rather than in the middle - a distinction that would make it harder for those counties to argue that they are a vital part of either market.

"The Census Bureau has been telling us all along that ... it would probably come down to your elected officials, whether they want [the combined area] to stay," said Richard W. Story, executive director of the Howard County Economic Development Authority. "If [the congressmen] don't have an opinion, if nobody asks them to care, they'll probably say [to OMB and the Census Bureau], `Do what you want.' We're trying to say the communities do want it."

Response from cities

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