Population decreasing in Allegany, Garrett
CNHI News Service
WASHINGTON — Until a few years ago, things were looking up for Western Maryland. A sound national economy and a desire for country living brought workers from Baltimore and Washington to the fringes of the state, causing the demand for domestic and commercial real estate to skyrocket.
But since the beginning of the recession, this trend has reversed. As a lack of job security and the high costs of commuting drive workers closer to urban centers, Western Maryland hopes to strengthen its local economy by embracing green jobs.
Frederick has been the most successful of the western counties in this regard. Its population has grown by 49 percent since 1990.
Frederick’s success is also a product of its proximity to Washington, D.C.
“When D.C.’s doing well, it brings Frederick up with it,” said Anthony Stair, associate professor of economics at Frostburg State University. “You see the growth extend outward. I think it’s also hit Hagerstown a little bit, but it hasn’t gotten to Cumberland yet.”
Between 2006 and 2008, Frederick households had a median income of nearly $80,000, far above the Maryland average of $70,000.
Garrett and Allegany households earned $45,000 and $37,000, respectively. In addition, the Census Bureau reports, about 13 percent of Allegany and Garrett County residents lived below the poverty line.
Development through local green industries could prove a solution to the woes of other western counties, said Andy Moser, assistant secretary at the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. The problem, he said, is that the area is caught in transition.
“Western Maryland was home to a lot of manufacturing,” Moser said. “A lot of these manufacturers have pretty much moved out of that area.” The westernmost counties remain at a disadvantage simply “because they’re farther removed from population centers and major employers.”
But the area’s rural character could also be an asset: Allegany’s and Garrett’s open country lends itself to green technology, such as wind energy.
Moser is optimistic that Western Maryland’s former employers “will be replaced in the future by other ones, but we just haven’t seen it yet.”
So far, it seems the western counties lack incentives to make their residents stay. Garrett County saw a 6 percent population growth during the 1990s, which turned into a net loss after 2000. Allegany County has lost more than 3 percent of its population since 2000.
David Nedved, an economic development representative with the Allegany County government, thinks green technology could be a viable strategy for pulling people and jobs into his county, saying the government has discussed establishing a wind turbine plant in the area.
He also said he hopes Allegany’s low cost of living will continue to lure people away from the urban centers as economic recovery trickles down.
“We are seeing people moving into this area from the more urban areas down state,” Nedved said. “The trouble is we’re in the middle of this huge recession.” In Garrett County, natural resources are key to a local economy based heavily on the hospitality industry, according to Frank Shap, a development specialist with the county.
Over the years, Garrett’s economy was bolstered by second-home owners and retirees attracted by the county’s natural beauty, but the recession has diminished this source of income, said Michael Bello, owner of a photography business in McHenry. “Home building and everything right now is down in Garrett County, like it is everywhere,” Bello said. “That certainly affects everybody’s business. Even the visitors, while they’re still coming, are not spending as much while they’re here.”
As a result, Garrett has worked to diversify its economic portfolio to include specialty manufacturing and green technology. Down the road, Shap hopes, the county’s experience with natural resource extraction will attract the biofuel industry.
Meanwhile, Garrett is investing in its future, Shap said, by providing incentives for the next generation of local workers to stay. Among other things, the county created a special scholarship program at Garrett College that covers tuition and fees for recent Garrett County high school graduates.
“We cannot rely on hospitality alone,” Shap said. “Work force skill development is very important for us to keep our economic growth.”