Is winter really coming?

From The Frederick News-Post:

Maybe it’s a morning in late September. You step outside to pick up your News-Post from the driveway. You’re wearing a thin T-shirt, and you suddenly notice a chill in the air that wasn’t there the morning before. “Winter’s coming,” you think.

Something very similar should have and probably did happen when community leaders, business leader, political leaders and the rest of us picked up our News-Post on that Monday when the headline said: “Region’s economic pull may be fading, study says.”

That kind of news should send a chill down the spine of all of us.

According to the report by highly respected economist Stephen Fuller of George Mason University in Virginia, the Washington region grew significantly slower than other regions in the years following the end of the Great Recession.

Between 2010 and 2016, the report said, “the Boston region’s economy grew twice as fast as the Washington region’s economy, the Atlanta region grew three times as fast, the Seattle region grew almost four times as fast and Houston region and Dallas region each grew approximately five times as fast as the Washington region’s economy.”

Those numbers are shocking. Perhaps even more shocking was the news that many of the new jobs being created here are not high-paying federal jobs and federal contractor jobs. These new jobs are in “local-serving sectors — education and health services, leisure and hospitality services (includes restaurants), and retail trade — having average salaries about one-half of those found in the federal and professional and business service sectors,” the report said.

This is worrisome news for our county. In addition to having a significant federal presence in Frederick, especially at Fort Detrick, about 40 percent of the county’s workforce travels to Montgomery County or Washington, and most work at federal jobs or with federal contractors.

All of the indicators are not pointing down. Anirban Basu, an economist and CEO of the Baltimore-based Sage Policy Group, told News-Post reporter Ryan Marshall that the region’s economy has remained steady even if growth has slowed.

The housing market has held up well, unemployment is low, and the area has been adding jobs at a pace that’s consistent with the national average, Basu said.

But the Fuller report noted that the region’s population growth has dropped from 1.9 percent per year in 2010 to 0.9 percent in 2016, according to the report. That reflects precisely the trend here in Frederick.

Basu agreed that young knowledge workers are being drawn to San Francisco, Boston, Austin or other technology-heavy areas. Washington needs to diversify its economy, and needs to develop a private sector that doesn’t sell its services primarily to the federal government, he said.

That reflects the real challenge facing the political and business leadership of the region as a whole, and of Frederick County as well. The enormous expansion of the federal government that began after World War II created the modern economy of the Washington region. But political trends nationally seem to be running against the further expansion of government services, and that probably means slow or no growth in federal spending here.

Now, our leaders are being tested, to see if they can create the conditions that will lead to a new, more diverse economy for the region and for our county. Can we rise beyond being the federal government’s “company town”? That should be the long-range goal of the local leaders throughout the region, and in Frederick.

Otherwise, we might be facing a long decline. Is winter coming? The next several years may tell.