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Washington Co. jobless rate stays low

July 02, 1998

By SHEILA HOTCHKIN

Staff Writer

Washington County maintained one of its lowest unemployment rates in recent history throughout April and May, even as the state average increased.

According to figures from the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, the county held a 3.7 percent unemployment rate through those two months, while the state average increased from 4.2 percent to 4.4 percent.

"It's one of the lowest that we've seen," said Shanon Wolf, manager of the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation office in Washington County.

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She estimated that the average unemployment rate over the past two years has hovered at a little more than 5 percent.

Many say the stable jobless rate in Washington County becomes even more significant when compared to seasonal unemployment increases in 15 of the state's 24 jurisdictions, including all of the Baltimore metropolitan area, most of the Washington, D.C. suburbs and several counties on the Eastern Shore.

"Unemployment increases are not uncommon in May," said Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation Secretary Eugene A. Conti Jr.

He explained in a Thursday release that the number of seasonal employees joining the work force each summer often outpaces the number of jobs that become available.

John C. Howard, executive director of the Economic Development Commission, was heartened by the figures.

"The Economic Development Commission is always encouraged when it sees a stable pattern of low unemployment," he said. "We are especially encouraged when we do better than the state average."

Howard said it is difficult to attribute the county's recent success to a specific business moving into town.

While figures later in the summer will be affected by such large employers as Prime Outlets at Hagerstown moving into the area, there were no major changes in the month of May, he said.

Howard said he does not know why the county's economy was so strong during the late spring but gave several reasons why its jobless rate is so much lower than those of other rural areas in the state.

In May, Allegany County registered a jobless rate of 5.3 percent and Garrett County's was 7.3 percent. Most Eastern Shore counties had unemployment rates exceeding 5 percent.

"Hagerstown and Washington County enjoy a degree of urbanization unlike some of the more rural areas," Howard said. "And over time, we've been blessed with a more diversified employer base that looks like the more urban areas."

Wolf agreed: "We're not relying on very few industries anymore."

The county's quality of life attracts many employers, and everything from the two nearby interstate highways to the Maryland Theatre and Maryland Symphony Orchestra make a difference, Howard said.

"For a (metropolitan statistical area) our size, we do reflect a number of the transportation, recreational and cultural factors of communities much larger than ours," he said.

Tourists were the draw for Prime Outlets at Hagerstown, which has scheduled its grand opening for early August.

"This is a historic area," said Alice Rosen, assistant general manager for Prime Outlets at Hagerstown. "There's an awful lot of tourism in this area. And part of what makes tourism fun is shopping."

Nearby Frederick County had a 2.7 percent unemployment rate, the third-lowest in the state for May.

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