By TINA IRGANG
WASHINGTON (Dec. 15, 2009) - Until a few years ago, things were looking up for Western Maryland. A sound national economy and a desire for country living brought workers from Baltimore and Washington to the fringes of the state, causing the demand for domestic and commercial real estate to skyrocket.
But since the beginning of the recession, this trend has reversed. As a lack of job security and the high costs of commuting drive workers closer to urban centers, Western Maryland hopes to strengthen its local economy by embracing green jobs.
Frederick has been the most successful of the western counties in this regard. Its population has grown by 49 percent since 1990—and the local economy's emphasis on green technology means the county will continue its ascent, said Randy Gray, a local business development specialist.
"Back in the '50s and '60s, Frederick County had more of a heavy industrial image," Gray said. "There's still manufacturing here, but it's gone mainly within the last 10 years to this clean bioscience technology."
Frederick's success is also a product of its proximity to Washington, D.C.
"When D.C.'s doing well, it brings Frederick up with it," said Anthony Stair, associate professor of economics at Frostburg State University. "You see the growth extend outward. I think it's also hit Hagerstown a little bit, but it hasn't gotten to Cumberland yet."
Indeed, Frederick County has far surpassed its western neighbors in terms of wealth. Between 2006 and 2008, Frederick households had a median income of nearly $80,000, far above the Maryland average of $70,000.
At the same time, Washington County households had an average income of about $53,000 annually, and Garrett and Allegany households earned $45,000 and $37,000 respectively. In addition, the Census Bureau reports, about 13 percent of Allegany and Garrett County and 9 percent of Washington County residents lived below the poverty line. In Frederick, the number is less than 5 percent.
Development through local green industries, such as Frederick County has experienced, could prove a solution to the woes of other western counties, said Andy Moser, assistant secretary at the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. The problem, he said, is that the area is caught in transition.
"Western Maryland was home to a lot of manufacturing," Moser said. "A lot of these manufacturers have pretty much moved out of that area."
Most moved abroad or to different parts of the U.S. to lower production costs and remain competitive, Moser said.
In addition, the westernmost counties of the state remain at a disadvantage simply "because they're farther removed from population centers and major employers."
But the area's rural character could also be an asset: Allegany's and Garrett's open country lends itself to green technology, such as wind energy.
Moser is optimistic that Western Maryland's former employers "will be replaced in the future by other ones, but we just haven't seen it yet."
So far, it seems the western counties lack incentives to make their residents stay. Garrett County saw a 6 percent population growth during the 1990s, which turned into a net loss after 2000. Allegany County has lost more than 3 percent of its population since 2000.
Washington County fared slightly better, but found itself facing problems when the recession set in.
Up until then, the county had seen steady population and economic growth.
"Basically, the way the economy was going at the time, we were getting a number of people," said Michael Thompson, director of the county's planning department. "Prices got so high in the metro area and Frederick, and here they could buy a house for less money."
The influx quickly began to show. Washington County's economy normally grows at around 0.7 percent a year—by 2005 that number had more than doubled, Thompson said.
But the county lacked incentives to make people stay when the economy declined and the cost of commuting became an issue for many families. The local job market was not attractive enough for a highly skilled work force.
"They just can't get the big salaries locally," Thompson said.
Brien Poffenberger, president of the county's Chamber of Commerce, said the influx of Marylanders working in Washington and Baltimore led to a significant housing and retail boom in the area, turning Washington County into an exurb, or long-distance suburb, of both cities.
When the recession reversed this boom, local construction companies and contractors were hit particularly hard.
"Both residential and commercial (construction) were really on fire, and that has just gone away," Poffenberger said. "It's led to really severe cutbacks in payroll."
Among those cutting back was Hagerstown commercial contractor Building Systems Inc. Owner George Stone said the downturn forced the company to reduce its work force by half.
The intense competition for rare contracting jobs in the recession also means local businesses such as his have to go up against bidders from Baltimore and elsewhere.
"In a normal economy, they would have worked in the Baltimore area, they would not have come this far west," Stone said. "Now that there's less work everywhere, everyone's trying."
Meanwhile, Allegany and Garrett counties are trying to help along economic recovery and maintain their workforce by taking a leaf out of Frederick's book.
David Nedved, an economic development representative with the Allegany County government thinks green technology could be a viable strategy for pulling people and jobs into his county, saying the government has discussed establishing a windmill turbine plant in the area.
He also said he hopes Allegany's low cost of living will continue to lure people away from the urban centers as economic recovery trickles down.
"We are seeing people moving into this area from the more urban areas downstate," Nedved said. "The trouble is we're in the middle of this huge recession."
In Garrett County, natural resources are key to a local economy based heavily on the hospitality industry, according to Frank Shap, a development specialist with the county.
Over the years, Garrett's economy was bolstered by second-home owners and retirees attracted by the county's natural beauty, but the recession has diminished this source of income, said Michael Bello. Bello owns a photography business in McHenry.
"Home building and everything right now is down in Garrett County, like it is everywhere," Bello said. "That certainly affects everybody's business. Even the visitors, while they're still coming, are not spending as much while they're here."
As a result, Garrett has worked to diversify its economic portfolio to include specialty manufacturing and green technology. Down the road, Shap hopes, the county's experience with natural resource extraction will attract the biofuel industry.
Meanwhile, Garrett is investing in its future, Shap said, by providing incentives for the next generation of local workers to stay. Among other things, the county created a special scholarship program at Garrett College that covers tuition and fees for recent Garrett County high school graduates.
"We cannot rely on hospitality alone," Shap said. "Work force skill development is very important for us to keep our economic growth."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.