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Slower growth projected for Md. in 21st century


The pace of Maryland's growth will slow in the early 21st century as its population ages, according to new long-term projections by the Maryland Office of Planning.

The state's population is forecast to increase from 5 million in mid-1995 to 6 million in 2018. Montgomery County is projected to reach a population of 1 million in 2020, the first Maryland jurisdiction to do so.

The projections are based on fresh population estimates for mid-1995, which show that Montgomery (810,000) is the state's most populous county. Its population has increased by almost 53,000 since 1990.

Baltimore City, which has dropped from No. 2 to No. 4 in population since 1990, has an estimated 692,800 residents. That represents a decline of more than 43,000 in the past five years. This is the first year Baltimore's population has been less than 700,000 since World War I.

The city's population is projected to level off at about 671,300 in 2020.

But Michel A. Lettre, assistant director of the Maryland Office of Planning, acknowledged that the city projection was an "optimistic scenario."

"The outlook being projected suggests a significant decrease in out migration [of city residents to nearby counties]. How likely that is, is anyone's guess," he said.

Much of the robust growth over the next quarter-century is projected to occur in the outer suburbs -- counties such as Carroll and Howard in the Baltimore region; Frederick in the Washington region; and Calvert and Charles in the Southern Maryland region. Baltimore County, which is expected to remain the state's third largest jurisdiction (behind Montgomery and Prince George's), is forecast to grow slowly. As the first stop for most residents who leave the city, the county's fate is closely tied to Baltimore's.

Maryland's population is expected to grow significantly older in the next 25 years. The state's median age -- the age at which half the population is older, half younger -- is projected to increase from 32.3 in 1990 to 38.5 in 2020 as the huge "baby boom" generation (those born from 1946-1964) ages.

The share of the state's population that is 65 or older is expected to grow from about one in 10 in 1990 to about one in six in 2020.

At the same time, the school-age population -- the "baby boomlet," or children of baby boomers -- is expected to grow for the next decade before peaking about 2005. Suburban counties are expected to be hard pressed to build enough schools to handle the enrollment.

The number of Marylanders in the 15-24 age group -- a group that is disproportionately represented in arrest statistics -- has declined steadily since 1980, but it is projected to climb sharply after the year 2000. That demographic shift could pose a challenge for police agencies.

While the broad trends about the aging of the population might hold true (unless foreign immigration changes the mix dramatically), long-term projections are often unreliable. State projections made as recently as 1987 turned out to be wrong as Maryland's 1995 population exceeded projections by almost 150,000.

Mr. Lettre said planners here and across the nation didn't anticipate the sharp increase in births in the late '80s and early '90s. Women who had delayed childbearing to pursue careers had babies while younger women, perhaps more secure in the workplace, also had children, creating what Mr. Lettre called a "double whammy."

At the same time, a stronger-than-expected wave of foreign immigration increased Maryland's population, particularly in the Washington suburbs, and the state's economic prosperity attracted thousands of workers from other states.

The latter trend reversed in 1992-1993, as recession-battered Maryland suffered a net outflow of more than 15,000 people to other states, according to a study of federal tax returns.

"It's a humbling experience," Mr. Lettre said of making long-term projections. "You hardly get them on paper before you're humbled by them."

Optimism about Baltimore City's population growth is nothing new. In 1953, the State Planning Commission projected that Baltimore would grow steadily to nearly 1.2 million in 1970. As it turned out, the city population already had peaked. After reaching almost 950,000 in 1950, it has declined ever since.

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