Baltimore jobs story perks up 5,000 more working in a shrinking city


IT MUST BE true. The economy really is booming.

Baltimore is adding jobs.

Not quickly. Not necessarily sustainably. But adding.

Employment "is growing again in the city of Baltimore, and this does not seem to be a passing phenomenon," said Anirban Basu, an economist at Towson University's Regional Economic Studies Institute.

A stadium construction job here. A hotel maid's job there. A corporate treasurer's job over there -- and the city managed to have 5,000 more people working within its borders in May than it did a year earlier, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It's the first time Baltimore has been able to say that since 1988, when the economic rot set in.

Sporting 470,000 jobs that year, the city was engorged with borrowed cash.

The federal government had hocked itself up for warplane parts and urban grants; developers, for condos and office buildings. When the credit dried up, so did payrolls. Baltimore leaked 50,000 jobs between 1989 and 1992.

Economic recession was eradicated from the nation in 1991, but it retreated and lived on in its Baltimore stronghold. The city shed another 20,000 jobs between 1992 and last year, bottoming out close to 400,000.

The summer of '97

The turn seemed to come last summer.

Downtown revived, as office buildings brimmed over and tourist attractions such as the Hard Rock Cafe started to come on line.

Canton and other neighborhoods perked up, and big corporations finally stopped buying Baltimore companies and laying off half the managers.

Government vendors started hiring again as threat of federal atrophy receded. Tempered by hard times, surviving factories caught a jolt from national commerce.

And success caught up with Maryland's and Baltimore's arch-foe, Northern Virginia. With Virginia rents becoming exorbitant, "downtown Baltimore is increasingly the choice of those seeking to serve the federal government," said Basu.

"In fact, downtown Baltimore can serve as a suburban office market for the Washington market."

City vs. suburbia

Baltimore had 410,000 jobs in May. Part of that's a seasonal spurt, but the city seems on target to book an average of at least 405,000 jobs for the whole year, and maybe more.

"The cost of doing business in the suburbs has increased," said Mark Vitner, an economist with First Union Corp. in Charlotte, N.C.

"Workers in the suburbs are demanding higher salaries; you're running out of people to hire."

A year ago, Baltimore's unemployment rate was 9.2 percent, compared with, say, Howard County's 3.1 percent. Now that companies are hiring the available workers, Baltimore's jobless rate has declined to 8.4 percent.

Welfare reform has pushed the process, Vitner said, as city governments become employment agencies for needy companies.

Other cities are reviving, too.

Philadelphia, for example, continues to track a remarkably similar path to Baltimore's. Philadelphia was home to 673,000 jobs in May, 7,000 more than a year ago.

But resounding national growth has not reached into every urban crevasse.

Washington struggles still. The District of Columbia has lost 71,000 jobs since 1990 and figures to lose another 5,000 this year, nearing the 600,000 level.

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke shouldn't start bragging.

The city is growing much more slowly than its satellite counties and more slowly than Maryland as a whole.

It may be adding jobs, but it's still losing residents -- 14,000 last year, according to Census Bureau estimates.

The General Motors strike will hurt employment results for the summer. Unable to secure parts, GM's Baltimore plant has idled 3,100 workers.

And doubt about the factory's continued presence "represents an enormous potential downside to the city," Basu said. "It's not at all clear that the Broening Highway plant is part of GM's long-term vision."

For Baltimore, however, 5,000 jobs on the plus side is better than the opposite. And better than recent history.

Pub Date: 7/05/98

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