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Area income lags behind national average

May 09, 1998|By LAURA ERNDE

Paychecks of Jefferson County, W.Va., residents grew faster than those of workers in the rest of the Tri-State area from 1986 to 1996.

But per-capita income in Jefferson County, and in most of the Tri-State area, lagged behind the national average of $24,426, according to a report released last week from the U.S. Department of Commerce.

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Only one local county - Frederick County, Md. - kept up with the Joneses with a per-capita income of $24,582.

Per-capita income often is used as an indicator of the economic well-being of the residents of an area. It is calculated by dividing the total personal income of the residents of an area by the area's population.

Washington County's per-capita income of $19,917 in 1996 ranked fourth out of seven counties in the Tri-State. In Maryland, the county was 19th out of 24. Only Allegany, Caroline, Dorchester, Garrett and Somerset counties were lower.

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Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Director John C. Howard said that is unacceptable.

"This is embarrassing. We are better than this," he said.

One of the Economic Development Commission's top priorities for this year is attracting higher-paying jobs in manufacturing, research and development and biotechnology to the county, he said.

"There is no reason why a community with the sparkle and economic vitality that Hagerstown and Washington County has should be at the bottom of the pile," he said.

From 1986 to 1996, earnings from manufacturing dropped in the county, while earnings from services increased, the commerce department report said.

The area's relatively low salaries and strong work ethic do help to attract and keep jobs, said L. Michael Ross, president of the Franklin County (Pa.) Development Corp.

Eventually, the area's per capita income will surpass national averages, he said.

"Presumably, what is starting to happen is the wage rates in this part of the world are starting to grow proportionately," he said.

Jefferson County's wage boom is due in part to its nearness to Washington, D.C., officials said.

The lower cost of living and rural way of life have prompted city-dwellers to relocate there, said Mary Via, executive director of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce.

Also, local employers have increased wages and higher paying federal jobs have moved in, said Jane Peters, executive director of the Jefferson County Development Authority.

By contrast, Morgan County, W.Va., had the slowest growing per capita income from 1986 to 1996.

The rural county also had the lowest per capita income in the Tri-State area in 1996 - $16,718 - the report showed.

County Manager Bill Clark said people don't move to Morgan County with the idea of making a lot of money.

"We're basically a rural community and most of the folks here like it. I know there's a price to pay for that," he said.

The county is working to change that, he said.

A new business park on U.S. 522 south of Berkeley Springs, W.Va., has attracted manufacturing businesses to boost the tourism-based economy, he said.

Officials are lobbying for an extension of the MARC commuter train service to the area, he said.

"I think you're going to see Morgan County's growth start to reflect more of the growth in the region, as this growth moves from east to west," said Morgan County Commission President Phil Maggio.

The county must decide how much of the county's rustic quality it is willing to sacrifice for income growth, he said.

One test of how far county residents are willing to go will come next week during a referendum on whether a medical waste treatment plant wins permission to do business at Paw Paw Industrial Park.

Another rural county had the second lowest per capita income. Fulton County, Pa., residents made $17,979 per person in 1996, the report showed.

The income was low despite the fact that it grew at a rate of 5.8 percent a year over the decade.

Nearly half of Fulton County's earnings comes from manufacturing, the report showed.

The dominant force in the county's economy is JLG Industries Inc. in McConnellsburg, Pa., which employs 2,500 people making aerial work platforms.

Manufacturing jobs increased in both Franklin and Fulton counties, the report showed.

"We have a cluster of industrial and equipment manufacturers, a supplier network of fabricators and machine shops," said Ross.

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