Baltimore tries to break free of Rust Belt image

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore left the Rust Belt behind years ago, but local economic development marketers think the metro area has yet to shed the reputation of a struggling manufacturing hub.

They want to get out-of-town companies and locals to think of the Baltimore region as an equal of affluent Seattle, Denver and San Diego, rather than besieged Cleveland and Detroit, its historical peers.

The Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore, a nonprofit partnership between government and business to encourage economic growth, released a "progress report" last night that makes the argument by marshaling facts about changes in the Baltimore area since the start of the decade.

"We certainly have come a long way ... and we haven't done a good enough job of marketing ourselves," said Edwin R. Brake, who sits on the alliance's board and is managing director of Baltimore-based certified public accounting firm Ellin & Tucker.

The alliance, which intends to compile progress reports annually, said the Baltimore metropolitan area's continuing manufacturing job losses and scant number of Fortune 500 headquarters contribute to the impression that it is economically troubled. Instead, the group said, Greater Baltimore "has become one of the strongest-performing metro area economies in the U.S."

For instance:

Among the 25 largest metro areas, Baltimore ranks first for income growth per person between 2000 and 2005, according to the most recent government numbers. It ranks eighth overall for per capita income, about $41,000 in 2005.

The Baltimore area ranks eighth for private-sector employment growth from 2000 to last year, and it has one of the largest concentrations of jobs in the high-paying professional, scientific and technical services sector.

About a quarter of the area's office space was added between 2000 and 2006 alone.

The alliance credits Baltimore's good rankings to the ripple-effect influence of the wealthy and fast-growing Washington area, growth of anchor institutions such as Johns Hopkins Medicine, increased vitality downtown and easy air and rail access to pricier Northeast markets.

Though manufacturing was once a Baltimore mainstay, health care has long since taken that role. The 20,000 jobs added by health care employers from 2000 through last year just about balanced out the losses in manufacturing employment.

Charles W. McMillion, an economist who was not involved with the report, said he agrees with the contention that the metro area is outperforming most parts of the country. The bad news, he said, is that unsustainable deficit spending by the federal government is an important part of the reason. Maryland-based contractors have received a disproportionate share of the largess, but eventually spending growth will have to slow.

Still, McMillion said, he finds it odd that the alliance sees a need to make the case that the Baltimore-area economy is like Seattle's or Denver's. That seems self-evident to him.

"I wrote a piece for the Greater Baltimore Committee in like 1990 or '91, basically making that argument," said McMillion, president and chief economist of MBG Information Services in Washington. "So I'm surprised that it's surprising to anybody else. ... Baltimore has not been a city of big shoulders and blue collars for a very, very long time."

Brad S. McDearman, executive vice president of the economic alliance and a former corporate site selection consultant, is convinced the old image is still hanging on.

"Often in the national media, we continue to be lumped in with what we were 30 years ago," he said.

John Frisch, chairman of Baltimore-based law firm Miles & Stockbridge, hopes the findings will change minds locally, not only out of town.

"I think Baltimore for some time has suffered from something of a self-esteem or inferiority complex," said Frisch, a member of the alliance's board.

Brant Standridge, Baltimore-area executive at BB&T;, plans to forward the report to the bank's corporate office in North Carolina. Earlier demographic and economic information from the alliance was useful for the company as it made a decision to open four branches in the area this year and two to four next year, Standridge said.

"Any information about our community really helps us as we add infrastructure and resources," he said.


Baltimore metro area by the numbers

Per capita income growth, 2000-2005: 24.1 percent, highest among 25 largest metro areas

Per capita income, 2005: $41,320

Rank among largest metro areas for income: 8th

Private sector job growth, 2000-2006: 5 percent

Rank among largest metro areas for job growth: 8th

Number of new jobs, 2000-2006: 51,100

[Source: Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore]

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