Updated: Mar 29, 2020
The Garrett County Republican reported a State of the County presentation at a Chamber of Commerce Business Before Hours event. The former Economic Development Director of 17 years, and now County Commissioner Jim Hinebaugh, presented a rosy picture of Garrett County's economic state in spite of recent events that would suggest otherwise. "Overall, the economy is very good right now," Hinebaugh said. “Unemployment is somewhere around 4 percent. I remember the days when the average unemployment for 1997 was 13 percent. In February and March in those years, it got up to 15 or 16 percent. So, from my perspective, 4 percent is pretty good.” According to the Maryland Department of Labor, as of December 2018, Garrett County sat at 4.8% unemployment, roughly one point lower than neighboring Allegany County and above the national unemployment rate of 3.9%. Greg Jericho of The Guardian reports that in the past, the unemployment rate was a pretty good measure of the health of the economy. The current rate of 3.9% for much of the past 30 years would have meant the economy was in quite robust health. But over the past decade, the increasing growth of part-time employment means that gauging the economy’s fitness requires much more than just taking the unemployment pulse rate. Jericho looks at the actual employment growth as a better indicator of what is going on in the economy. But even here one needs to look at what type of employment is growing – rather than just the big overall number. Are jobs generating a family living wage or are families working multiple jobs to make ends meet? Hours worked is in many ways the best measure of employment health, according to Jericho. Part-time employment can mean anything from one hour a week to 34 hours, and equally, full-time employment includes anything from 35 hours and above. Hours worked not only can show the shift from full-time to part-time it can also detect changes within each category. What Hinebaugh didn't address according to the Republican article was the recent closing of Luke paper mill owned by Verso. The mill's closing leftover 675 employees from the tri-state area without jobs and only a 30-day notice to seek new employment. That severed workforce will not appear on the unemployment roles until the fourth quarter of 2019. Anticipating, not ignoring employment shifts are a critical part of protecting economic stability. The Commissioners also adopted the first tax rate increase in over two decades, tapping real property tax and raising the accommodations tax to make up for a $4 million budget shortfall for fiscal year 2019. This move would indicate a troubled revenue stream and climbing county expenses. Additionally, Maryland Environmental Services was contracted to operate county public utilities to save the county $100,000 in the first year which kicked 13 county employees to the curb in the process. Although the new contract will bring savings, that expense to MES is moving tax dollars out of the county. Although indicators most often used to determine the health of a local economy may suggest good news, there are conflicting factors that paint a different picture lacking the color rose. Garrett County's population has remained stagnant for 30 years and an aging population, loss of high school graduates, concerns over community school closing and school consolidations should raise several red flag that the local economy needs immediate attention. Amidst the budget shortfall, a new employee was hired by the Department of Economic Development, according to the report. “I think the title is going to be Business Development Specialist,” Hinebaugh said. “The primary responsibility will be to work with the eight incorporated municipalities to help them develop infrastructure, attract and grow businesses and that sort of thing.” If municipalities have indicated they are not receiving proper attention from the Department of Economic Development already, it wasn't made clear where the department's attention has been focused. Hinebaugh noted the new employee would also be able to move into a position if a current worker retires or leaves the department. The report did not suggest any staffing changes were expected. Garrett County still lacks a comprehensive economic study to inform us of what the benchmarks of a healthy economy would be. Rather, the county has stayed the course on a rocky, well-traveled road, expecting to arrive at a new destination. The county is centrally located between major universities and just hours from the 5 wealthiest counties in the nation, all located in Maryland and Northern Virginia. An advantage that has not yet been exploited but could be in a long-term strategy. Deep Creek Lake is a top tourist destination for the region yet it's known only as a vacation resort rather than a place to locate a business, and the municipalities that could benefit from business migration, have apparently been completely overlooked as implied by the new position announced for the Department of Economic Development. The county is often referred to as an agricultural community throughout the state, however, there is no identifiable export that leverages that tremendous wealth of farmland and all it offers. This economic arm goes largely unacknowledged at the county level. Outside of tourism, Garrett County is not competing regionally, nationally, or globally to pinpoint or secure its deserved market share. Every business is on the global stage since the advent of the internet. The mountaintop resort is surrounded by wealth and education, yet it remains insulated from the benefits of both. Fish don't jump in a boat–they are gathered with calculation, perseverance, and adaptive reasoning. Without a well-crafted master plan, strategic goals, and a unified economic message, Garrett County may continue on a haphazard, reactionary course. The recreation industry generates over 60% of the county's economic wealth through vacation homes, vacation rentals, district 18 property tax, and tourism revenue. Part-time visitors fund schools and infrastructure they occasionally or barely use at all. The service industry jobs generated by tourism are often seasonal and not positions that are upwardly mobile. This economic dominance creates a lopsided dependency. Diversifying the business contributors could be the key to a sustainable and pliable long-term plan. Besides the lack of diverse industries, Garrett County sorely needs more people. People generate wealth and opportunity. Young families can repopulate schools and establish the next generation to carry the torch. Currently, modern jobs require area youth to go elsewhere whether they want to or not. It's time to make those opportunities available at home by inviting businesses to locate on the mountaintop. The assets of beautiful surroundings, outdoor recreation, affordable "community" living, and open roads are the antidotes to the common frictions of city life.
Boasting low unemployment figures is not a cure for the county's economic woes, however, leveraging an increasingly rare way of life would be a proactive move to charting a new course for the county – one that might produce results worth talking about.