ANNAPOLIS – Allegany and Garrett counties are reversing historically high unemployment rates, according to statistics released Wednesday by the state’s labor department.
Garrett County’s unemployment rate decreased from 5.3 percent to 4.7 percent from July to August, consistent with a general decline since the late 1990s.
Allegany County also posted a decline from 6.8 to 6.4 percent during the same period.
“The outlook is positive. The unemployment rate will continue to drop in the coming months,” said Charlie Ross, director and chief executive officer of the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce.
Washington County, another Western Maryland county, also experienced a decline, from 3.8 to 3.7 percent, but it’s not experienced a steady decline as its neighbors have.
The numbers released Wednesday are not seasonally adjusted.
Western Maryland counties were among 15 counties statewide where unemployment declined in August, said Linda Sherman, public information officer at the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
Maryland’s average unemployment rate rose slightly from 4.1 to 4.3 percent, but remained lower than the national average of 5.4 percent, according to federal figures released Friday.
Although outstripped by other regions in the state, Allegany and Garrett’s economies are performing well by their own standards, county officials and analysts say.
“Historically speaking, Western Maryland is doing well,” said John Hopkins, acting associate director for applied economics at RESI economic consulting at Towson University.
Garrett County’s unemployment rate reached 13.7 percent in 1997, after the county’s main employer, Bausch & Lomb, shut down its Ray-Ban sunglass factory in Cumberland and about 600 workers lost jobs. Its unemployment figures have improved every year since 1998, when the rate was 10.9 percent. Last year the unemployment rate was 6.6 percent.
“It’s not fair to compare (the economies of) Western Maryland to the rest of Maryland because the dynamics are different,” Hopkins said.
Their economies are sustained by tourism, construction and, to a lesser extent, manufacturing, he said.
“They’re not corporate hotbeds,” he said. “It’s unlike (Washington and its suburbs), where there’s high-tech growth due to a reliance on federal funds and close proximity to other counties.”
Garrett County faces several drawbacks to encouraging large companies to site plants there.
“Many things are lacking — a readiness to construct company sites, easily accessible roads and availability of water and sewage facilities,” said Jim Heinebaugh, director of the county’s economic development agency.
New manufacturing and construction jobs have helped reduce unemployment, he said, particularly around Deep Creek Lake, a popular mountain resort in Oakland, enjoying a housing boom.
Allegany County’s lower cost of living has proved attractive to businesses.
In early summer, American Woodmark Corp., a cabinet manufacturer, announced it plans to build a plant in Cumberland and create 70 jobs.
David Kauffman, president of the Downtown Cumberland Business Association, said large and small companies, as well as government contractors, see “the county’s property values as a drawing point.”
Kauffman relocated his instrumental music store, Kauffman Music, to Cumberland from Calvert County a few years ago.
“Opening a new business was not easy,” Kauffman said, but “here I purchased and renovated my shop for $200,000, whereas in other areas in Maryland, the minimum is $500,000.”
“You get more building space for your money here,” he said.
From 1995 to 1998, Allegeny County’s unemployment rate hovered around 8 to 9 percent and first dropped in 1999, to 7.2 percent, according to the state labor department.