City slips as area's jobs leader

Baltimore County moves to front in employment

Growth in health care, high-tech

July 13, 2005|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

The long leak of people and jobs from city to suburbs has come to this: Baltimore County is now the region's dominant employment hub.

It apparently happened last year as the county was enjoying strong growth and the city continued to lose ground, according to numbers from the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

By the final three months of last year, Baltimore County had 371,900 jobs, new preliminary numbers show. Baltimore had 358,100. As recently as 15 years ago, the city had roughly 90,000 more jobs than it does now.

People who study the region were caught by surprise because they've seen signs that the city is on the rise again, especially downtown, where construction cranes dot the landscape. But they add that the shift has been in the works for half a century, since people began moving out to new suburbs and employers followed. The county surpassed the city in population in the 1990s.

"Oftentimes, Baltimore County's gains are the city's losses," said Richard P. Clinch, director of economic research at the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute. He said the city is doing better now than at any other time in his 12 years in Maryland but, "Baltimore City's long-term future is clearly at risk as an employment center because of the suburbanization of employment."

The county is gaining jobs largely in health care, business and professional services, and high-tech, the data showed.

Take Franklin Square Hospital Center, in Rosedale. It employs about 2,800 people; last year, it added more than 200 jobs and opened a new cancer institute.

Though many of its workers live in the county, it draws substantial numbers from both the city and Harford County. Franklin Square is part of the shift of the county's economy away from manufacturing and toward services, a change that has also deeply affected the city.

"Right now, we are the largest employer on the east side of the county," said Karen Robertson-Keck, the hospital's assistant vice president for human resources. "Used to be Bethlehem Steel."

David S. Iannucci, head of economic development for the county, thinks the county's recent growth is "a small-business success story overall," but big employers have also played a role. Government contractors such as Lockheed Martin Corp. are expanding quickly around the federal complex in Woodlawn. The St. Paul Travelers Cos. Inc., the insurance giant that bought Baltimore-based USF&G Corp. seven years ago, moved 700 jobs from the city to Hunt Valley last year.

Even the significantly smaller Howard and Anne Arundel counties are employment magnets in their own right now. Together, their job base equals the city's, state numbers show.

Another suburban jurisdiction - Montgomery - has the state's largest concentration of jobs, about 456,000.

City officials weren't happy about the news that Baltimore is no longer the top center of employment in the region, which comes at a time when Mayor Martin O'Malley is hoping to unseat Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. They stressed that the statistics are preliminary and are typically revised, sometimes drastically.

"We have some questions about these numbers," said Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for the mayor.

But Celeste Amato, director of business development for the quasi-public Baltimore Development Corp., said the county's ascendancy has a positive side.

"Baltimore County being strong is only good for Baltimore City, and vice versa," she said. "County workers are certainly buying homes in Baltimore City, which is pretty obvious by our increasing house values."

Tax-paying city residents are a plus no matter where they work, since the piggy-back income tax they pay goes to the jurisdiction in which they live.

Iannucci agreed that the two jurisdictions "are inextricably linked economically."

"Baltimore City is and remains the center for the economy of the Baltimore region," he said. "What we're seeing is Baltimore County's maturity as a powerful economic center of its own."

The state's count of jobs is extracted from information filed by businesses as they pay their unemployment insurance tax. Patrick Arnold, the state's director of labor market analysis and information, said he's confident that the most recent numbers are accurate reflections of the employment picture.

What's less clear is how quickly counties' job bases are expanding or shrinking. That's because in the past, businesses with multiple locations often credited all their employment to their headquarters. The state is now more aggressively pressing companies to report where the jobs really are, Arnold said.

So state numbers show Baltimore County's employment base growing by nearly 11,000 jobs from fall 2003 to fall 2004 - more than any other jurisdiction in Maryland - but the real number is probably about 5,000, he said. Some of the "new" jobs were there all along but credited in the past to, say, the city.

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