The economic malaise that gripped Howard County for the past two years has ended, leaving officials confident of healthy and sustained growth for the foreseeable future.
A number of key indicators registered impressive gains last year, and there are no signs of significant cooling, according to a report by the county's Economic Development Authority.
The report shows:
The number of jobs created in the county last year will be at least double that of the previous year, once all data is available.
Wages rose sharply, pushing the median family income to $103,000 a year, the highest in the country.
New leases of office space reached record numbers.
Unemployment, which has not been a serious problem in the county for years, dipped to 2.5 percent, less than half the national rate and 2 percent lower than Maryland's average.
"The economy of the county is solid and improving," said Richard W. Story, chief executive officer of the Economic Development Authority, which works to recruit and retain businesses in the county. "We are back to normal. We are even hyper-normal."
Job creation is critical in gauging the economy, and those figures show a good recovery. After a lackluster performance in 2003, when 1,421 jobs were created, new jobs in the county last year will easily top 3,000 and perhaps reach 4,000 when final figures are analyzed, Story said. Job growth should be even stronger this year, he said.
The gain last year was spurred by the technology, information, defense, health care and national security industries. They provided momentum to the gains in wages. While the average salary in the county rose to $823 from $801 a week, in many cases those sectors paid employees more than $1,000 a week.
"In the last 18 months, there's been huge new spending coming out of defense and homeland security," Story said. "That's pushed us over."
Leased office space made a significant leap. Companies took 800,000 square feet last year, doubling the previous record of 400,000 square feet, set in 2000.
That gain drove down vacancies to 12 percent - almost half the rate two years ago. Demand for office space will be robust this year, but probably not reach last year's levels, Story said.
"We're fully recovered from the last couple of years," he said. "We're on the right track."