- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
St. Mary’s County would see some financial loss, and a reduction in jobs, if sequestration and other cuts in defense spending continued for the next several years.
But, those factors wouldn’t cripple the local economy, and may even allow room for slow growth in different industries here during that time, according to data from an economic forecast presented to government and industry Wednesday night.
Local industries, despite the across-the-board federal budget cuts known as sequestration and a drawdown in the defense spending, could actually do “fairly well” in St. Mary’s County, said Daraius Irani, a consultant with the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University, talking to a room of about 100 people at the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center.
St. Mary’s County government asked the institute at Towson to study possibilities of how the county would fare during a stressed economy. The information could help local government explore new ways to diversify the economy and reduce its dependence on military dollars flowing through Patuxent River Naval Air Station.
Irani estimates, that jobs would be lost early on in St. Mary’s if both sequestration and the defense drawdown continued.
Jobs in St. Mary’s would drop from 41,869 without both sequestration and a drawdown in 2015, to 40,910 if both occurred.
(Irani defines jobs as the number of people working in St. Mary’s. The figures do not consider St. Mary’s residents who are employed in other jurisdictions. The number also includes people who work here but live elsewhere.)
However, by 2020, Irani estimated that the number of jobs without sequestration and a drawdown would be at 43,980. If both sequestration and the drawdown continued, those job numbers would be at about 41,799 that year, indicating that some job growth could still occur over time.
That doesn’t mean you should “rest on your laurels,” Irani said after the meeting. If drastic federal spending cuts continue, job losses could snowball, he said. “Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail in Congress,” he said, hoping for respite in 2016, after another round of elections. “We have to actually pass a budget and not pretend to.”
As for the potential snowball effect, Irani said, “there is an opportunity to address this now.”
Pax River has brought prosperity to St. Mary’s, but the county that is now overly dependent on one revenue source. The key to staying economically viable is looking at ways to commercialize defense technology, said Robin Finnacom, acting economic development director. The Navy has long searched for industry partners to assist with manufacturing or development associated with patents.
There’s also a growing market for unmanned vehicles in the private sector. Drones can be used on land, in the air and by sea. And, the key to developing that market here is working with the University of Maryland, slated to establish a UAV research center here, to find more widespread applications of drones and technology associated with them. “We need to focus heavily on those opportunities,” Finnacom said.
The next steps in developing an economic strategy for St. Mary’s include the county taking “time to absorb this,” Finnacom said. And, research will continue in other areas, through work with the Southern Maryland Navy Alliance, federal and local government, and entrepreneurs, to determine where St. Mary’s is the strongest, weakest and where new economic opportunities might exist.
Irani offered a few clues Wednesday, estimating that private industry focusing on management of companies, manufacturing and finance and insurance could be hurt most by continuing changes in the federal budget. But local industries that remain strong would likely be engineering services, computer systems design, management, scientific and technical consulting, and scientific research and development services. And, generally, the county economy would do much better if the scenario included only a drawdown in defense spending, and not additional reductions associated with sequestration.
It was enough to buoy the spirits of people in a community that has suffered more than a year through furloughs, layoffs and uncertainty associated with sequestration, and encourage them to keep searching for ways to strengthen the economy here.
“We’re going to keep growing a bit. And, that’s a good thing,” Jack Russell (D), county commission president, said. “But none of this comes easy.”