`Sweet spot'

August 31, 2005

MONTGOMERY COUNTY has its biotech corridor along Interstate 270. Anne Arundel and Howard counties benefit from the defense industries around the National Security Agency at Fort Meade and BWI Airport. And Baltimore is growing its own biotech cluster near Johns Hopkins Hospital.

So, in Maryland, which area racked up the best job growth last year?

It was Harford County, once a semi-rural commuter suburb but now legitimately billing itself as the "sweet spot" for business in the Mid-Atlantic region. Its job base grew by 6.7 percent in 2004.

The military base-closing decisions last week -- shifting about 5,300 high-paying civilian jobs from New Jersey to Aberdeen Proving Ground -- put the focus on Harford as a burgeoning high-tech center.

But the county has been booming for more than a few years -- and not only because of its big military installation. The most notable aspect in its almost 26 percent gain in jobs from the end of 1998 through 2004 is that all the growth came from the private sector, not direct government employment.

Harford's location used to primarily attract warehouse and distribution facilities, but the county now draws higher-paid workers to research and corporate parks, such as the Battelle Memorial Institute's center (being expanded to about 600 workers within two years) and the Water's Edge mixed-use project on U.S. 40 in Belcamp.

As a result, Harford's median household income from 2000 through 2004 grew by 12.4 percent, the second-fastest rate in the Baltimore region. During that period, the county also was second in the region in the growth in the number of its households and in issuing new housing permits.

Across Harford, farms are being turned into housing, and older residential areas along main roads are going commercial. The building boom has started to spill over into Cecil County to the east.

Such rapid economic growth is good for the Baltimore region, but of course comes with tough challenges, most notably crowded schools and jammed roads, to the dissatisfaction of many longtime residents.

In recent years, Harford has improved its abilities to manage growth. Its Standard & Poor's credit rating was raised last year to AA+, a relatively high ranking nationally. The county is using a new adequate public facilities law to close development in crowded areas. It just adopted impact fees for developers of new housing. It's not waiting for state funds to start building a needed middle and high school complex.

New County Executive David R. Craig, the former Havre de Grace mayor picked last month to finish the last 16 months of James M. Harkins' term, talks properly of not fighting but shaping growth. Residents can do that by getting involved with Harford's first comprehensive rezoning since 1997; the first of four public meetings to discuss it will be held tonight at Aberdeen High School. The goal of that process -- and of all county efforts in accommodating this economic boom -- is for Harford to be just as sweet a spot for its residents as it is for business.

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