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Baltimore-area exports boom, led by chemicals, computers

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The Baltimore region showed nearly double-digit growth in export goods and services in 2010, with room to grow, according to a study released Thursday by the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based public policy organization.

The report, titled "Export Nation," reviewed data collected from the 100 largest U.S. metro areas. Baltimore was ranked 27th, with exports valued at $9.7 billion.

U.S. exports, led by manufacturing, grew faster than at any time since 1997, said Emilia Istrate, the study's lead author.

Manufactured goods accounted for 53.4 percent of Baltimore's exports, with chemicals, computers and electronics topping the list, the study showed. Business services and travel and tourism led the list for exported services.

"These numbers are significant," Istrate said, adding that Baltimore's exports translated into 40,000 direct jobs and 67,600 export-supported positions with suppliers, transportation firms and wholesalers.

"Exporting is not just an abstract number," she said.

Research and development constituted one-quarter of Baltimore's services exports. The top three buyers — Ireland, Switzerland and Japan — together purchased services valued at $157.5 million.

"This is business that can be tapped into for years to come," Istrate said. "This is heartening that Baltimore has a mix of exports with high growth potential."

The study showed that while the country has a $15 trillion economy that leads the world, fewer than 1 percent of U.S. companies export goods and services, and most of those exports go to a single market.

Exports have been on Gov. Martin O'Malley's radar.

O'Malley was scheduled to join business leaders Wednesday night to announce that Maryland's trade exports climbed 7 percent in 2011 to $10.8 billion, showing a return to pre-recession levels. The state's export high, in 2008, was $11.4 billion.

Late last year, O'Malley led a trade mission to India and returned with nine deals worth nearly $60 million, ranging from medical and Web-based projects to engineering and medical endeavors. Trips to Brazil and Africa are being discussed, and representatives of India's business community are scheduled to visit Maryland next month.

Maryland's trade with China and India increased last year, with exports to China rising by $93 million and exports to India increasing by $20 million, according to the state.

On top of the list of commodities exported from Maryland last year were non-railway vehicles.

O'Malley was also to give an update on the two-year-old Maryland Export Initiative, which helps small businesses increase their exports, generate jobs and target global trade opportunities.

Istrate said the state's efforts were crucial to finding new clients and partners.

"You have to go where the clients are. One of the main things holding companies back is a fear of the unknown," she said. "Companies need help taking that first step, and trade missions are an integral part of that."

The Baltimore region's biggest losses, by value, from 2009 to 2010 were in financial and insurance services, the study showed. The service declines were most likely due to the sluggish economy, Istrate said.

The Port of Baltimore is ranked 12th nationally in traffic and fourth on the East Coast, behind New York; Norfolk, Va.; and Philadelphia.

In a briefing Tuesday for the Maryland Port Commission, deputy planning director Jim Dwyer said that while the national growth rate for ports last year was 3 percent, Baltimore saw a 15 percent increase.

Container volume totaled 2.3 million tons, the second-highest amount ever for Baltimore. Auto shipments were up 32 percent, and the port was ranked second in the United States for exported coal.

Australia, the world's largest coal exporter, was forced to close 75 percent of its mines early last year after epic flooding destroyed equipment and damaged rail lines. Asia's steel mills had to scramble for other sources of coal — to Baltimore's profit, Dwyer said.

The port exported 19.2 million tons of coal from its two privately owned terminals last year, shattering the 2010 total, which had been a record.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley Swaim-Staley said the study's findings reinforced the business model the port is using as it upgrades the Seagirt terminal to accommodate massive "Panamax" cargo ships in two years — and as it secured deals with three of the world's largest container shipping companies.

"What we are seeing is that we have so much capability that when markets change, we can adapt and do very well," she said. "We're not dependent on just one commodity. We're able to react."

Istrate said it was important for Maryland's leaders to continue to play to their strengths and maintain their "global fluency."

"The world is changing rapidly," she said. "Your competition is not necessarily another U.S. metro area. It could be in Europe or China."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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