Economic Outlook: A New Year and Decade

Commentary by Bob Schaller, Director, St. Mary's County Dept. of Economic Development

Welcome 2010 and the decade of the tens. The change brings new hope and new challenges. The new hope stems from our natural blessings and the success we've realized this past decade and past year in particular. We are a growing community, the anchor of the fastest growing region in the state. Strong job growth in the high quality technology sector has provided high growth rates in median income and population. Relatively low unemployment and an increasingly attractive workplace for young professionals and veterans provide the draw for families seeking good neighborhoods, quality schools, cultural and recreational opportunities.

The community has responded offering many amenities throughout the County and region. From the Town and Port of Leonardtown to expanding retail options along Route 5 in Charlotte Hall and further south on Rt 235 in California and Lexington Park, to the many sites and attractions that dot the County's landscape including the many unique restaurants, shops and service establishments that support them. It's a great blend of everyday America and everyday County. The geography, heritage, history, farming, and of course our fondness with the water surrounding us all combine to form what we know as St. Mary's, the mother county.

The heart of it all is our major employer and community partner, NAS Patuxent River. We are so fortunate to have Pax River in our back yard. Of course Pax employs the bulk of our labor force. But the bigger community impact from the growing defense technology contractor community and the increasing connection with our education system ensure stability and availability of a future workforce. Education partnerships at all levels from elementary and secondary, both public and private, to higher education institutions at the 2yr, 4yr, and graduate levels, are in place and expanding. The base's involvement continues to get stronger in community initiatives such as Lexington Park redevelopment, joint master planning, and infrastructure support and services for water, sewer, and energy usage. It's also worth mentioning our quality health care system which continues to adapt to the changing needs of our growing community. Overall, the County offers a good blend and hopeful prospects for the coming year and decade.

Going forward our challenges are many. We probably face more uncertainty now than anytime in recent history. First and foremost is the economy itself. While the region, DC area, and the County in particular have been insulated from the poor economy of the past few years, we are not immune. The effects are evident in the number of business cutbacks and closures, layoffs, rising unemployment and demand for human and social services. Hopefully these measures will start to turn in the right direction. Some have already reversed. But it is the psychological impact that is the hardest to combat as employers and consumers both lack confidence to fully hire and spend. The reality is that the economy goes through cycles. We're now on the upside of the cycle called recovery. As always it starts slow, and will remain so until momentum gathers. We're not accustomed to this because it's been a generation since the last major economic downturn. It will take 2010 and probably 2011 before economic confidence is fully restored and things are churning again. In the meantime the lagging effects on state and local government budgets will be felt just like in the private sectors.

The important point is that recession is inevitable and a necessary part of every economic cycle. What goes up, comes down, and then goes back up, and so on. A market economy is like an organism that self-corrects and self-heals when it is sick. The correction process is often unpleasant. It is very difficult to go through an economic downturn as an individual, family, or organization. But this change in reality causes you to take stock and make hard decisions that are long-term in nature. A layoff is very painful to both the receiver and giver, but it is the market economy at work. That same market economy will find both the affected worker and the company more competitive as each learns to adapt to a new reality. The bottom line is that recessions make us stronger. In fact, it is in this very time when risk re-enters and is channeled to fuel a new career, a new product, or an entire new enterprise. These are the ingredients for sustained recovery.

There are many more challenges facing us that I will address in future columns. But the economy and the psychology involved seem the most pressing. Little by little the risk of change translates into actions that will build momentum and in turn, economic recovery. Along the way, smarter decisions are made as we are more mindful of how we use scarce resources.

So the time for adapting to a new year, a new decade, and a new reality is here and now. As discussed earlier, we have a solid foundation to build upon. The Department of Economic & Community Development is here to assist St. Mary's County businesses and citizens in a variety of ways. Please contact us at 301-475-4200 x1400 or with questions. We'll try to answer your questions directly or direct you to the many resources available that could assist.

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