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Joe Nathanson: Regional Report – a great start to the year

Just in time for the holiday season, the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore handed out a present for the region. It wasn’t wrapped in shiny paper and tied with a ribbon, but it was packaged in a 24-page blue, white and copper-colored report on the region’s standing relative to peer communities.

The report was given a soft launch, being released without any fanfare on the evening of the alliance’s annual meeting in December. In a sense, the package was a regifting. As explained in an interview with Patrick Dougherty, the market and research analyst on the EAGB staff, much of the material presented in the Greater Baltimore Regional Report had been released along the way during the course of the past year.

It should also be noted that comparing peer regions is a very flexible concept, sometimes involving metropolitan regions, at other times using the combined Baltimore-Washington metro area and occasionally comparing Maryland with other states.

With that caveat, for those who may have missed the details over the last 12 months, here are some notable highlights:

Overall, the region has shown strength and stability. Perhaps the most remarkable item in the report is that Greater Baltimore has experienced positive growth in its total economic output every year since 2002. That was in the context of a national economy that saw an absolute decline in output between 2008 and 2009. The heavy presence of the federal government, in both its military and civilian components, is seen as the likely reason for this region’s stability.

Much attention is given to the Baltimore region’s high level of educational attainment, its rich endowment of higher educational institutions and its representation in the knowledge industries.

In terms of educational attainment, the Baltimore area has a workforce in which 36.4 percent have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, well above the national rate of 29.1 percent. Baltimore also ranks high on the measure of persons holding graduate or professional degrees, with 15.8 percent. Only Washington, D.C., and Boston rank higher among the comparison regions.

On a statewide basis, Maryland has the highest percentage of students scoring a 3 or higher in Advanced Placement exams, with 29.6 percent; the U.S. mark is 19.5 percent.

With the benefit of its high educational attainment, the region is particularly well represented in what are the regarded as the industries of the future. In cybersecurity, the Baltimore region has almost 13,400 jobs, according to the Cyber Technology and Innovation Center. Only the San Francisco-Palo Alto complex has more.

Biohealth is another sector linked to the strength of local research universities, Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland, and the proximity of federal research facilities, notably the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration. Among comparison regions, only Boston had a higher biohealth employment concentration than Baltimore. Another measure highlighted is the $803 million in NIH awards to Baltimore institutions in 2012, exceeded only by research grants garnered by institutions in Boston and New York.

In another state-to-state comparison, Maryland is cited by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as No. 1 in innovation and entrepreneurship. The reason? The state is first in academic research and development. In addition, Maryland is reported to have the second-highest concentration of STEM employment.

Using metro-area comparisons, Baltimore holds a No. 2 ranking as a place for minority entrepreneurs. The Atlanta region tops the list, according to rankings developed for Forbes magazine on the basis of measures of self-employment.

The Regional Report gives less attention to some of the “goods handling” sectors that still have an important place in Baltimore’s economy. It does give a nod to the Port of Baltimore and its readiness to handle cargo transiting an expanded Panama Canal, helping to “make the region an ideal place to import or export … and distribute goods around the country and the globe.”

Dougherty, a recent Loyola University of Maryland business graduate and a lifelong resident of the region, clearly shows an enthusiasm for the strengths of his hometown. And the material that he has assembled can back up the EAGB’s planned marketing campaign designed to capture the “soul” of the region.

Asked to give his takeaway on the regional report, Dougherty offered that “Greater Baltimore is a premier metropolitan area, with a great quality of life and relatively low cost of living.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce would quibble with that last point. The same report, citing Maryland’s high ranking for innovation and entrepreneurship, said that the “state’s business climate was dragged down by being 43rd for cost of living, 40th for tax climate and 39th for state and local tax burden.”

But this was no time for handing out lumps of coal.

Joe Nathanson heads Urban Information Associates Inc., a Baltimore-based economic and community development consulting firm. He writes a monthly column for The Daily Record and can be contacted at urbaninfo@comcast.net.