St. Mary's Co.'s New Locals

Economic Commentary by Bob Schaller

This county grew faster than all others in Maryland last decade. A 22% growth rate enabled the population to break the 100,000 threshold. St. Mary's anchors the 3 counties commonly referred to as Southern Maryland, also the fastest growing region in the state. Still mostly rural, our counties resemble more northern Virginia counties of Loudon or Stafford than similar rural counties in Western Maryland or Eastern Shore. Like northern Virginia's rapid growth, the reason is jobs. Unlike northern Virginia and to a large extent our two sister counties, our jobs are here, not in the DC metro area. Granted, there are many who commute to work inside the beltway. The MTA buses leaving California and Charlotte Hall on weekdays are among the busiest in the state. But what's exceptional about St. Mary's County's workforce is that most, better than 7 out of 10, live and work in the County. No other suburban county on either side of the Potomac comes close to this. Indeed, we truly live, work, and play/recreate as others claim or desire. The work, of course, is driven by NAS Patuxent River and its many tenants and remote facilities such as Webster Field in St. Inigoes.

This point was made very clear a few weekends ago at the 26th Annual Crab Festival held at the Fairgrounds and sponsored by the Leonardtown Lions Club, of which my wife and I are members. To better understand our market we had conducted informal polls at the gate since moving the event a few years ago. We simply asked attendees where they were from. Surprisingly, about half were local. Local meaning the three Southern Maryland counties and across the river from Virginia's Northern Neck. Traditionally, the annual Crab Fest was seen as a day-trip event for folks from Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia who don't get the opportunity to eat hard crabs as much as we do. We figured most locals would not spend $3 a crab and sit in the hot sun amidst a thousand people when they could readily get them a lot cheaper. What we learned a few weeks ago is something entirely different.

An estimated 2,000 attendees was the best Crab Festival ever. To precisely understand who was attending this year we captured attendees' zip codes, more than 1,300 of them. We didn't get them all and we didn't count the children (which most had with them). The findings are as follows:

-- 56% St. Mary's County (led by Lexington Park at 14%, California at 10%, Leonardtown at 10%)
-- 10% Calvert County (led by Lusby at 5%)
-- 9% Charles County (led by La Plata at 3%)
-- 75% from Southern Maryland

-- 7% Rest of Maryland
-- 7% Virginia (concentration from Northern VA and the Northern Neck)
-- 2% Pennsylvania
-- 1% Washington, D.C.
-- Balance of 9% from 29 other states and a few other countries (mostly visiting the area already)

Better than half from the county, and three-fourths from the tri-county was a remarkable discovery. It reveals that this event has evolved from a tourist draw to a local draw. There is certainly a strong tourist demographic as shown in the numbers, but the trend is much more local. The difficulty we had is that we did not recognize most of the faces. Another indicator that was revealing is that many were first-time attendees who admitted they did not know how to eat a hard crab. My wife, who did most of the zip code tallying, also served as an impromptu guide and resource to many of the attendees who asked, "What do you do here?"

From this we surmise that many (most) of the local attendees are new to the area, desiring to engage in the community and learn more about our culture. We call this cohort the "new locals." They are part, perhaps the largest part, of the 22% population growth we experienced last decade. Young families who live in newer neighborhoods in Lexington Park, California, and Leonardtown. We realized that enjoying hard crabs, something old-hat to real locals (like my wife and I), was an altogether new experience to new locals. Armed with this new knowledge we'll continue to enhance this event to make it more worthwhile to attendees. But this also tells us much about marketing and branding of our county to others, both far and (especially) near. Finally, the idea that so much information can be gleaned from the simple question, "What's your zip code?" reminds us the importance of being data driven. Decisions, planning, and predictions can be that much more effective than depending on anecdotal methods alone. Just imagine what's possible with an ethic that naturally collects relevant data on economic and community development matters important to the County.

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