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Quad-State lawmakers meet with economic officials

December 17, 2009|By ERIN JULIUS

HALFWAY -- Area legislators on Thursday discussed local unemployment figures, economic uncertainties and how to provide education so residents will be prepared for high-tech jobs.

During the 22nd Quad-State Legislative Conference, held at Springhill Suites Hagerstown on Valley Mall Road, economic development professionals from three states presented an economic snapshot of the area and discussed areas where legislators can offer support.

The conference traditionally includes lawmakers from Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia, but none from Pennsylvania or Virginia attended Thursday. The Pennsylvania representatives were called to a special session, conference host Del. Andrew A. Serafini, R-Washington, said Thursday morning.

Two other members of Washington County's delegation to the General Assembly -- Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, and Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington -- attended the conference.

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Del. Wendell R. Beitzel, R-Garrett/Allegany, also represented Maryland.

Representing West Virginia were Del. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley/Morgan, Del. Jonathan Miller, R-Berkeley, Del. Walter Duke, R-Berkeley, and Del. John Overington, R-Berkeley.

The quad-state region parallels the nation in terms of three traditional economic indicators -- unemployment, quarterly employment figures and the number of issued building permits -- said Patrick Barker, executive director of the Winchester-Frederick County (Va.) Economic Development Commission.

Barker made Thursday's presentation along with Tim Troxell, executive director of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission, and Berkeley County (W.Va.) Development Authority Executive Director Stephen L. Christian.

Munson asked each what the unemployment rate was in his county.

Unemployment is at 9.6 percent in Washington County, Troxell said.

Christian and Baker offered only figures for their respective states. West Virginia's unemployment rate is 8.5 percent, Christian said. In Virginia, the rate is a little higher than 7 percent, Barker said.

In response to further questioning by Munson regarding the "real" unemployment rate -- when people who have given up their search for a job are factored in -- Barker said a good rule of thumb would be to add 4 to 5 percent to the unemployment figures.

Christian said because of seasonal employment during the holidays, the region might see a rise in unemployment rates during the first quarter of 2010.

The recent dip in construction, which affected the entire region, might have hit Washington County even harder because so many people were employed in construction and the subcontractor market, Troxell said.

The Western Maryland Consortium had rarely seen carpenters or electricians seeking help with employment but now those with construction experience make up a much higher percentage of the consortium's clients, Troxell said.

Troxell cited nationwide statistics that show only 40 in 100 high school freshman will attend a four-year college or university, and of those, roughly half will earn a degree, as he stressed the need for training in rising fields.

Troxell said legislators looking at state budgets need to remember the importance of training in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. The region is ripe with opportunities for those interested in aviation and aerospace science, he said.

Troxell referred to his counterparts from nearby states as "friendly competitors."

Discussion at the conference also touched on regional tourism.

Tom Riford, president and CEO of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors' Bureau, stressed the importance of tourism to the local economy.

Tourist spending in Washington County was about $300 million in 2008, up from about $278 million in 2007, he said.

At the state level, one problem for tourism is cuts made to state-operated visitors centers, Riford said.

A state official said Wednesday the restrooms at the Sideling Hill Exhibit Center on Interstate 68 west of Hancock will close Jan. 5 and reopen by the end of April. Officials closed the exhibit center portion of the attraction Aug. 28 to save the state money, but kept the restrooms open.

Riford said based on statistics that show how much visitors who stop at a rest stop spend compared to those who don't, Sideling Hill brought in 10 times the amount of money it cost to run.

Paulette Sprinkle, executive director of the Jefferson County (W.Va.) Convention and Visitors Bureau, called tourism a "recession-proof" industry. People employed in tourism-related jobs make up about one-third of her county's employment force, she said. The addition of table games at Charles Town Races & Slots should bring an additional 500 jobs to Jefferson County, she said.

Serafini thanked tourism officials for their presentation, saying he had not realized the "dramatic" return on investment created by tourists.

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