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Educated population needed for growth

April 27, 1997

For the past few months the mail deliveries that come to my home have brought a large assortment of brochures, catalogs and fliers from colleges around the country, all hoping that my son the honor student will pick them. I am proud, but a little bit sad at the same time.

I'm proud because my son works hard to perform well, harder than I ever did at his age. I'm also sad because I know that when he goes on to college, I'll hear myself echoing the lament I've heard from so many other parents over the years. My college-educated son may not come back to live here because there just aren't that many jobs available for someone with a four-year degree.

And why is that? According to an economic-development specialist familiar with this area, it's because the percentage of local residents who have four-year degrees is too low. Companies look at that statistic, I was told, and we don't even get to make the quality-of-life argument to them.

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But if the percentage is too low, it's because our college-educated kids don't have anything to come back to. Because there aren't any white-collar industries, because there aren't enough college-educated people here...

Do you doubt that? Do you believe it's not a problem? Consider the consultant's report done on the comprehensive re-use plan for Fort Ritchie, which could be the biggest economic-development program here in the next 50 years:

Written by Deloitte & Touche Fantus, the report says, in part: "The recent (and historical) statistics relating to degrees obtained and the number of public school students who attend college will suggest to some employers that a well-educated work force will be difficult to recruit."

When Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening was in town recently, I asked him what could be done about this circular problem. Glendening said in his presentations to industry, he would emphasize two things - the relatively high percentage of Marylanders who do have advanced degrees and the state's transportation system, which makes it easy for those with the needed credentials to commute here from places like Montgomery County.

That answer assumes, however, that you'll get the chance to make that pitch to the industry and that its officials won't just rule out Washington County on the basis of a stat sheet.

Maybe there's another possibility: What if local officials concentrate on making this an attractive place to live for people with advanced degrees? Housing costs are certainly less than what they would be in the metro area, crime is lower and while we don't have the cultural amenities of Baltimore or Washington, D.C., there is a symphony and a very nice art museum.

There's also a tele-commuting center that would allow some people to skip the daily headache of driving Interstate 70 in favor of doing their work long-distance.

Would this area be attractive to people with advanced degrees? It was to Steve Riedesel, a retired Prince George's County teacher, who explored the region, including Chambersburg, Pa., before he and his wife settled on a house on West Washington Street in Hagerstown's West End.

Why West Washington Street instead of a quieter suburb?

"We wanted to be able to walk to places to places like downtown and the art museum," Riedesel said.

"We generally go there and to the Maryland Symphony. We see where there's potential for tourism, with the Civil War thing," he said.

Minor league baseball was also a plus for Riedesel, who said it would be a big loss if the area lost the Hagerstown Suns.

How did you discover this area?

"Through various little vacations we took, We began to realize this was a neat area," he said.

They considered Chambersburg, in part because Pennsylvania doesn't tax retirees' pensions, but in the end decided that they were Marylanders, and would stay in Maryland, he said.

The house they bought is a two-story home that's free-standing with a small yard. It had been an apartment building, but the Riedesels have converted it back to a home, and hope to paint the outside to make it look like it did when it was built, sometime in the 1840s.

In the first downtown economic summit, I sat in on a group that was considering housing in the city center. The conclusion then from that group, which included bankers, real estate people and others, is that for those who've lived here all their lives, life in downtown or on its fringes may not be attractive.

A better target market, they said, might be people who now live in urban areas like Rockville and Gaithersburg. In return for a slightly longer commute, we figured, they could wake up on Saturday morning in Washington County.

There probably is no one answer to economic development, or convincing our kids to come home after college. It may involve things that are almost accidental in nature, like the CEO visiting a Civil War site who sees the area and decides to look beyond statistics, or friendships, like the one between horn maker Walter Lawson and Barry Tuckwell that led to formation of the Maryland Symphony.

That said, consider this: If trying to convince highly educated people that this is a nice place to live might pay off with jobs our educated kids can fill, why not give it a try?

Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail Opinion page.

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