Good times ahead for Md.

December 03, 2003|By William Donald Schaefer

MARYLAND'S ECONOMY is ready to grow.

That is the message delivered to the state Board of Revenue Estimates, of which I am chairman, by the board's Business Advisory Panel. The panel is comprised of representatives of a cross-section of Maryland's economy, from manufacturing (Northrop Grumman) to communications (Verizon) to health services (Johns Hopkins) to construction (Whiting-Turner) and everything in between.

These reports from the field were uniformly optimistic for the first time in years. I wish every Maryland decision-maker, business leader and taxpayer could have seen the optimism and energy these business leaders conveyed. There would be no doubt that Maryland is on the verge of strong economic growth, healthy job creation and better times.

Spreading this good news is vitally important. The economic statistics show that Maryland has grown through the recession, has outperformed the nation over the last 10 years and shows every sign of continuing to do so, even as the national economy is performing at rates not experienced for years. But economic statistics do not drive hiring decisions, they do not drive investment decisions and they do not drive purchasing decisions. What does drive these business decisions is optimism for the future - expectations that while the situation looks good, it will only get better.

Unfortunately, it is far too easy for bad news to spread. Bad news leads on television newscasts and in the papers and gets the pundits chattering. It plays to our worst fears, particularly in times of war and uncertainty. The rise of the Information Age has resulted in an even more rapid circulation and multiplication of bad news. Good news has a hard time making itself heard.

While it is clear that our economy is recovering from its recent period of stagnation, Maryland will be that much stronger if people have confidence in the future. And the way to build that confidence is by spreading word of what is already happening in our offices, plants and shopping centers and what is possible over the coming months. The layoffs affecting dozens of employees get the attention, while the creation of a few jobs here and there does not. Business closings and layoffs do hurt, both the state's economy and individuals, but the slow progress achieved in small steps generally goes unnoticed. It shouldn't.

Panelists described the prospects for 2004 as "bright," "better than any time since 1999" and "the best year of the decade." Northrop Grumman needs literally hundreds of engineers, and Whiting-Turner will be hiring over 100 civil engineers annually. The nursery business is thriving, self-employment is growing and federal expenditures in the region are on the rise.

Health care costs are still growing, but more patients will be seen more efficiently and with better results than ever before. Arundel Mills Mall has exceeded expectations and boosted economic activity in the center of the state, building on the accomplishments of Baltimore-Washington International Airport. BWI has performed better than almost any other major airport in the nation and is now home to two of the fastest-growing and most successful airlines in the troubled industry.

Technology is driving change in Maryland - change that often results in job losses, but which more often than not leads to additional jobs being created. High-speed Internet access has reached the Eastern Shore and will soon expand in other rural parts of the state, creating new opportunities for people and businesses of all descriptions.

Our advanced manufacturing plants, many focused on national security, provide high-paying jobs to many without a college education. Biotechnology and life sciences are industries in which every state wants to excel, but Maryland is in the lead and will remain there.

To be sure, troubles remain in Maryland's economy. Some industries, some companies and far too many people are having difficulties getting by. Old-line industries, particularly manufacturing, are suffering and will likely never recover. Other industries, including those related to tourism, telecommunications and construction, will come through the downturn and go on to much greater heights. The past two years have been hard, but they have also highlighted the strengths of our economy and our way of life.

But those troubles should not and cannot blind us to the fundamental good news I heard recently. We can always find bad news to concentrate on, distracting us from the positive developments all around us that we take for granted. To do so would diminish our confidence in our state and ourselves and would result in lesser prosperity than we otherwise might achieve.

William Donald Schaefer is comptroller of Maryland.

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