Jobs growth sign that city is back on the ascent

December 22, 2004|By JAY HANCOCK

EVERY NOW and then, in the decade since urban consultant David Rusk declared Baltimore beyond "the point of no return" economically and politically, the city has tried to prove him wrong.

Once was in 1999, when people talked about a "digital harbor" and Baltimore started to reverse its job-base erosion for the first time in years. The stock market collapse and the slump after the 2001 terrorist attacks soon took care of that.

But now Baltimore is ascendant again, bolstered by internal development and surrounding economic vibrancy. The city was home to 397,200 jobs last month, almost 8,000 more than it had a year earlier and an increase of 2 percent, according to the federal government.

That kind of growth, which began over the summer and has shown up consistently in subsequent months, is Baltimore's best employment performance since the brief revival in 1999 and, before that, 1988.

"This is a really good sign" says Richard P. Clinch, director of economic research for the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute. "There is a confluence of good things, some of which are good luck and some of which are good investment, going on within the city. The city has finally stopped being an anchor around the state's neck" for economic growth.

There is no guarantee that the employment spurt, which coincides with an apparent lull in Baltimore's population loss, will continue. Last month's announcement that General Motors will close its Baltimore van plant and eliminate 1,100 jobs shows that city employment will continue to be threatened.

But as Baltimore karma goes, we'll take it.

"There is a substantial amount of development momentum across key industry segments," says Anirban Basu, chief executive of the Sage Policy Group, a Baltimore economics consulting firm. "There are a lot of cranes in the air. We have growth in real estate, construction, health care."

Just as important, he adds, is the stabilization of Baltimore's financial industry, which was hammered by mergers in the 1990s.

Baltimore typically loses jobs, year after year. It shed employment in 11 of the past 15 years and has 80,000 fewer jobs than it did in 1988.

The worst year was 1991, when the recession wiped out 30,000 jobs, 3,500 of them in manufacturing, the city's traditional strength. Subsequent acquisitions and the downsizing of Maryland National Bank, USF&G, Alex. Brown, Allfirst and other downtown anchors prolonged the pain.

"The city more or less missed out entirely on the boom years of the 1990s, whereas almost every other jurisdiction in Maryland - probably even Garrett County - experienced job growth," says Clinch.

What's boosting growth now? One factor is Baltimore's suburbs, which are having their best year since 2000, and "if the metro area is doing well it's likely to help the city," says Scott Hoyt, who follows Maryland for Economy.com.

When the city does add jobs, it usually trails the suburbs. Not now. Since July, Baltimore has slightly exceeded the metro area as a whole in percentage job growth, and Clinch thinks the city has more going for it than economic backwash from Towson and Columbia.

Parking garages conceived under Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and completed under Mayor Martin O'Malley have relieved a critical downtown shortage and employment hindrance. Office and hotel space is expanding. Residents of new downtown apartment buildings are creating jobs in nearby restaurants and markets.

Planned biotechnology parks east and west of downtown are spurring construction jobs and, if all goes as planned, will be home to thousands of permanent jobs in a few years.

Government figures show that the biggest pieces of recent Baltimore job growth have been in education and health care, which is benefiting from an aging population and large federal grants for drug and bioterrorism research.

The Johns Hopkins University's Maryland divisions, most of which are in Baltimore, have added more than 700 full-time and more than 1,000 part-time jobs since mid-2003, says spokesman Dennis O'Shea. Johns Hopkins Hospital, which is separate from the university, is up almost 350 jobs in the same period, says spokeswoman Joann Rodgers.

It's too soon to proclaim a Baltimore comeback, but if this is still going on a year or two from now the city will have accomplished something. At this rate of growth, by 2006 it'll be back to the job base it had in 1994.

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