Wial thinks Maryland can make inroads with manufacturing. The low-wage competition for manufacturing jobs that dominated the late 20th century, benefiting first the South and then countries such as China, doesn't strike him as the 21st-century fighting ground. China's wages are rising. And automation has made labor costs less significant for manufacturers.

In his view, the key to future manufacturing growth is innovation, a better battleground for both the U.S. and Maryland. He suggests that the state look to Europe's manufacturing powerhouse for ways to get in the game, rather than the lower-cost South or developing countries.

In Germany, he said, businesses, nonprofits and the government work together to strengthen the sector. There's a vibrant apprenticeship system and lenders that specialize in manufacturing.

The United States has a broken training system for technical skills and a financial system that ill serves manufacturers, especially smaller firms and startups, Wial said. An enterprising state could tackle both problems, he said, opening the door for more people to make things locally with emerging technologies such as 3-D printing, sensors and nanomaterials.

"They are going to create opportunities," he said.

Suzy Ganz, CEO of Lion Brothers Co., which makes emblems and other forms of brand identification, thinks so, too.

Twenty-five years ago, the Owings Mills manufacturer had about 350 employees in Maryland and a small workforce in China. Now it is essentially the reverse, with 400 to 500 people overseas and about 60 locally. But she expects that Lion will take on its first "reshoring" project next year, bringing work for one customer back to Maryland.

Though the number of jobs associated with that work will be fairly small, she said, she believes in the potential of new technology to make more reshoring — and small startups — possible.

"We're a research-and-development state," Ganz said. "I'm actually very hopeful about the return of advanced manufacturing."

Galiazzo, with the Regional Manufacturing Institute, is also feeling more hopeful these days. When the institute held a candidates forum in October, five of the six people vying to become governor showed up. Four proposed tax cuts.

"We need to look at existing companies in Maryland and say, 'What are the two or three things that would most significantly help them to be globally competitive?' and do those," Galiazzo said.

Jeff Fuchs, chairman of the Maryland Advisory Commission on Manufacturing Competitiveness, expects that the group's report next month will include recommendations to expand the research and development tax credit, reinstate a training-grant fund and start a statewide manufacturing association. He thinks the suggestions would help, but warns not to expect a fast turnaround.

"What we're seeing nationally and in the state has been the result of decades," he said. "These are things I would expect would slow and eventually reverse the trend."

Amazon is building a distribution center on the site of the former GM plant on Broening Highway, and razing began on the Solo Cup factory last spring to clear the way for the Foundry Row shopping center.

Galiazzo said there's still time to turn part of the sprawling Sparrows Point complex into a different sort of center, one for next-generation manufacturing. He's on the hunt for business, government and civic support.

"Given our proximity to Washington, we should be the think tank, the showcase, the experimental lab for this continuous evolution of 21stt-century American manufacturing," he said. "We should be showing the rest of the country how to do it."

Michael Lewis, who went to work for Sparrows Point after graduating from Patterson High School 35 years ago, would like to see companies making things where steel once flowed.

But new manufacturers don't seem to replace the old. Much more common, he said, is what happened after the fence factory down the street from his high school relocated to Edgewood. Now the Baltimore site has fast-food restaurants, a grocery store and shops.

"I'm not saying we don't need supermarkets, but what replaces what's lost never equals out for the working man," said Lewis, financial administrator for the local United Steelworkers union. "It's a race to the bottom."

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.