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Western Maryland looks to capitalize on opportunities

Frostburg State University is helping conduct a study to help jurisdictions in western Maryland identify industries that would potentially find the region attractive. (File photo)

The regional economy in western Maryland differs significantly between the region’s eastern and western halves.

Maryland’s two westernmost counties, Garrett and Allegany, have arguably traversed the most challenging path to sustained economic growth in Maryland — and that was before COVID-19.

Hammered by a decline in manufacturing and natural resource harvesting, those jurisdictions have suffered losses of industry, associated jobs and population during the past 30 years.

Allegany and Garrett experienced population declines of 5% and 3%, respectively, between 2011 and 2019. Both jurisdictions struggle with insufficient housing stock and the need for significant investment in aging transportation infrastructure.

Economic development officials and business advocates in Maryland’s westernmost jurisdictions see opportunity in the pandemic’s fallout.

“We’re at a point with COVID and all the other factors that have happened that we could have a revolution in the rural areas. With the pandemic, there’s been a change in attitude about people getting out of the cities and into the rural areas,” Jeffery Barclay, director of the Allegany County Department of Economic and Community Development, said. “Kind of having your cake and eat it too because of remote work.”

While places like Allegany County view the pandemic as a potential boon for rural counties, its economic development strategy borrows concepts used by formerly downtrodden urban areas, such as Pittsburgh, to revitalize.

In this case, it’s leaning on educational institutions, such as Frostburg State University, to help kick-start the local economy. Currently, Frostburg is conducting a study to help jurisdictions in western Maryland identify targeted industries that would find these locations attractive.

Technologically advanced outdoor recreation manufacturers, such as a hypothetical builder of kayaks made from recycled material, represent one such industry these counties feel uniquely positioned to attract.

Allegany County’s leadership is particularly bullish on the potential to emerge as a “rec tech” hub. They envision the section of Cumberland surrounding a proposed $15 million River Park Project as the ideal home for a cluster of similar enterprises.

“We’re trying to … reinvent ourselves if you will. We’re not unlike other industrial [areas] across the nation,” Barclay said.

The eastern portion of the region, particularly Frederick County, has emerged as one of Maryland’s economic success stories.

Driven by the prosperity of the Washington metro area and the associated cost of living in the capital region, Frederick, both county and city, experienced tremendous growth. The county’s population grew by 9% between 2011 and 2019. At the same time, the city’s population grew by nearly 10%.

“We’re doing quite a good job of growing a millennial population, fresh young workers that our businesses are dying for,” said Helen Propheter, executive director of Frederick County’s Office of Economic and Development.

At the heart of the growth in Frederick County is the burgeoning life sciences sector spurred by the creation of the I-270 Life Sciences and Biotech Corridor running through Montgomery County and pushing into Frederick County.

While the life sciences sector is the lifeblood of Frederick County’s tech environment, it’s also enticed meaningful investment from technology firms outside the life sciences sector.

In partnership with TPG Real Estate Partners, Quantum Loophole recently revealed it’s building a 2,100-acre data center campus in the county this summer. Additionally, grocery-chain Kroger plans to build a fulfillment center using UK-based Ocado’s grocery logistics technology.

Frederick County’s success has also carried over to neighboring Washington County, which experienced a population growth of 1.5% between 2011 and 2019. Between 1999 and 2019, the county’s population swelled 18% at a time when its western neighbors watched their populations sag.

“People are moving to Washington County because, compared to Frederick and Montgomery counties, it’s much more affordable,” Paul Frey, CEO, and president of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce.

Officials hope that Hagerstown, Washington County’s seat, which saw its population grow by more than 1% in recent years, is poised for a renaissance similar to what the city of Frederick has undergone.

Boosters envision creating a live, work and play atmosphere in downtown Hagerstown, which features assets like the 100-year-old Maryland Theatre and Performing Arts Center.

To that end, the Maryland Stadium Authority plans to build a multiuse sports and events facility downtown. The General Assembly and Gov. Larry Hogan already have authorized nearly $70 million in spending for the project.

This article is featured in The Daily Record's Doing Business in Maryland 2022 that was inserted in the Thursday, December 30, 2021 issue of The Daily Record.

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