Baltimore holds its own despite recession

January 17, 2009|By JAY HANCOCK

Baltimore was on its belly the last time the economy got this bad.

Unemployment was 11 percent in 1991. Nearly one in 10 city-based jobs had disappeared only a year after the recession began.

Residents were fleeing by thousands for homes in nearby counties or the Sun Belt. Homicides were about to hit a new high, never to be exceeded.

Say what you will about the terrible recession of 2008 and 2009, but it is unlikely to maul Baltimore in the same way. The city is showing a toughness that would shock those who once predicted it had passed a downward "point of no return."

The worst of this slump has not arrived. But so far, it cannot be said, as it once was, that wider economic pain must always be visited threefold upon Baltimore. It is holding its own. In some categories, it's doing better than its neighbors.

Take housing prices. Baltimore is a relative star in the most important indicator of this decade.

Yes, the million-dollar mansion club has lost numerous members in Guilford, Roland Park and other ritzy neighborhoods. Expensive houses across the region have shed hundreds of thousands in value. But overall, Baltimore homes aren't depreciating as fast as those in the suburbs. For much of last year, average Baltimore prices were even rising.

The average city home sold for 4 percent less in December than it did a year previously. Howard County house prices, meanwhile, plopped down 10 percent during the same period.

Credit Baltimore's mature neighborhoods, which weren't subject to the nutty speculation and pell-mell construction that occurred in some areas. But also give props to the city's comeback as a desirable place for those with options to live elsewhere.

Gentrifying neighborhoods such as Canton are critical to Baltimore's long-term health. Empty-nest baby boomers are deserting the suburbs for homes near museums, music venues and great restaurants. A thriving Hispanic community along Broadway in East Baltimore gives new, immigrant blood.

While Baltimore lost nearly 90,000 residents in the 1990s, its population has been stable at 640,000 for five years, according to Census Bureau estimates. One reason: You can work in the city without worrying so much that your job is about to vanish. Today's Baltimore specializes in health care, education and government, sectors least hurt by the recession.

Johns Hopkins Medicine, the University of Maryland Medical Center and other hospitals heal people from all over the world. Aging baby boomers make a medical recession unlikely until health care financing reform happens. Coppin State University, the Johns Hopkins University, Loyola College and others are enjoying huge demand as boomers' "echo" children apply to colleges.

One Baltimore-based job in five is now with federal, state or city government. Tight budgets will cause layoffs and furloughs, but government rarely shrinks as much during hard times as private companies.

The upshot: Almost a year after this recession officially began in January, Baltimore employment was holding steady. (The most recent figures are for November.) Unemployment has been rising but, at 8.1 percent as of November, isn't terrible for a former industrial town.

By contrast, a year after a recession began in July 1990, 35,000 Baltimore-based jobs had disappeared forever. The city lost almost 30,000 more jobs within the next few years as manufacturing and financial businesses that had carried it for decades fell apart.

The end of the Cold War hurt not just defense contractors but all manufacturers, as pieces of the globe opened up for free enterprise and cheap labor. Banking deregulation led to the acquisition and downsizing of Maryland National Bank, Bank of Baltimore and other critical employers.

Manufacturing and finance still contribute to Baltimore. But there simply isn't much manufacturing left to lose. The car industry is getting killed, but Baltimore's General Motors plant and its 1,100 jobs disappeared three years ago.

The purchase of Provident Bankshares by M&T Bank Corp. will be less traumatic than the loss of much bigger banks in the 1990s. T. Rowe Price, Baltimore's big money manager, is chugging along. Legg Mason, its even bigger asset manager, is having a rough time. But if Legg can avoid being acquired and complete its planned move to the east side of the harbor, Baltimore's financiers will have fared relatively well.

Maryland as a whole has been somewhat protected from the national downturn, which helps the city. (Unlike the nation, the state hasn't been losing more jobs than it creates, according to government figures.) But an OK Maryland does not guarantee an OK Baltimore, as history shows. The city was in its own little depression for much of the 1990s, even as state employment began to grow again.

It lost another 30,000 jobs in the early 2000s, after the dot-com blowup.

It will surely lose jobs, on balance, before this slump is over. Baltimore schools and an impoverished underclass are still huge problems. Economic progress has helped lower the homicide numbers, but crime is still rampant.

But if national recessions are an important test of Baltimore's mettle, in this one the city is bidding for a "most improved" award.

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