ANNAPOLIS – The job outlook in Anne Arundel County is looking much like the children’s game “Chutes and Ladders”: both up and down.
In recent months, the county has been stung by job losses at major firms like Westinghouse Electric Corp., Bell Atlantic and Nationwide Insurance. Hundreds of state government jobs are expected to be cut during the next few years, the result of government downsizing.
At the same time, other private companies are expanding. MCI, for instance, is enlarging its sales center near BWI Airport, adding more than 100 workers. And Annapolis soon will be the home for up to 200 executives and staff with the merger between Baltimore Gas and Electric and Pepco.
“It’s a long slow haul,” said Neil Shpritz, executive director of the BWI Business Partnership. “This area’s going to be hard hit by government downsizing.”
Local economic development officials are working to make sure that job gains outpace losses. Their strategies concentrate on keeping jobs already here, providing loan programs and expanding office space.
Anne Arundel, Maryland’s fourth most populous county, has seen its population grow by 5 percent since 1990, to nearly 450,000. Unemployment hovers around 6 percent, and the tax rates are near the state median, according to figures from state officials. Nearly one-fifth of county industry is in the public sector.
The business base centers around Baltimore/Washington International Airport in the north. More than three-quarters the county’s businesses are located there, and the local road, access and telecommunications systems are a chief draw.
The BWI Business Partnership operates as a marketing arm for 96 businesses in the area around the airport, representing many industries. Shpritz said the efforts in Anne Arundel parallel those all over the state.
The Anne Arundel County Economic Development Corporation, like more than 25 similar local agencies statewide, is charged with looking at ways to improve the local business climate. But it has also set its sights on regional goals.
“We’re taking more baby steps toward regionalism,” said Rosemary Duggins, marketing director. “We have to be fast on our feet when a business turns to us, and we need to take advantage when an opportunity comes up.”
Besides government, Anne Arundel County is dominated by small business. Nearly nine of every ten companies employ fewer than 20 people, according to the economic development corporation.
About two dozen county companies sought out economic development officials last year for help in choosing a location, expanding or borrowing money. Among the benchmarks of the county efforts is an incentive fund, which offers businesses a chance to borrow using the county as the guarantee agency.
More than 80 companies have taken advantage of the program through a total of nearly $1 million in loans at low interest rates.
Typically, Duggins said, banks or businesses will contact the office looking for help. Then, the effort to find suitable financing and office space begins.
“Banks are understandably cautious about lending money,” Duggins said. “They tend to look at what has the most impact.”
Office space is a concern. When the Army Corps of Engineers was set to expand, for example, it had to build a new building in the county. Existing space was either unavailable or unsuitable.
“We have a need for Class A office space in the county, and especially in Annapolis,” Duggins said.
Despite these obstacles, economic development officials say they are pleased with results so far. Duggins said that more than 1,400 jobs that could have been lost through consolidation or relocation were retained last year.
Nevertheless, she admitted that maintaining ground is a struggle. “We’ve seen a lot more consolidations within companies than having new branch offices open,” Duggins said.
Shpritz made a similar point about the BWI partnership: It is growing, but the need to stay competitive is more important now than at any other time.
“Economic development is critical right now,” he said. -30-