The small central Maryland city of Frederick has a relatively low cost of living and a good quality of life, but it has lost a lot of industrial jobs over the last 12 years. Frederick needs two things: more jobs, and easier ways to get to other job centers.

Frederick, Maryland has effectively knitted its historic district together with new development in an attractive, compact downtown. Image from the Frederick News-Post.

Frederick is widely recognized for its successful downtown revitalization, beginning with major public projects in 1980s and 1990s. There’s a thirty square-block historic district, which traces its roots to German settlers from the mid-18th century, and the entire city is a magnet even for people with stable jobs elsewhere.

Thousands of visitors come to Frederick for fine restaurants and brew houses, quirky boutiques, or just to take a stroll around the historic downtown. Photo by the author.

Despite the remarkable downtown growth, Frederick residents are overly dependent on jobs outside of the city. The kind of jobs that support a family have stagnated or declined locally, while lower paying jobs have grown.

Nearly 30,000 county residents commute to Montgomery County each day along I-270, and there isn’t a clear strategy for bringing high-paying jobs back to Frederick.

Frederick needs better regional transit to connect to employment centers in Montgomery County and Washington. Map from the Maryland Department of Planning.

A student-led real estate development and urban design group recently spent several months researching Frederick. The group’s takeaway? Growing Frederick’s jobs base and fostering compact, walkable communities will require adapting to the changing regional economy.

East Frederick can be the key to attracting new jobs

The team, which was made up ofUniversity of Maryland students, focused on East Frederick, which takes up 2,000 acres and is known as the east side.

With direct connections to the bustling downtown, the east side has a lot of potential but is less developed: it has a sprinkling of light industrial, office and even agricultural uses. A “vision plan” for the district published by an independent group in 2010 asserted the city should view the eastside as a job center, resisting market forces that make it compelling to develop available land in the city for homes.

According to the East Frederick Rising plan, the east side should become “a regional hub for economic growth” by retaining, expanding and promoting existing businesses, while attracting “a balance of large and small employers (that) expands the jobs base for the city.“While noting the traditional importance of light industry, the authors urged a focus on entrepreneurship and smaller “new economy” businesses.

Frederick won a “Great Neighborhoods” award from the American Planning Association for its “treasure trove of historic properties from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries which form one of the largest contiguous historic districts on the East Coast.” Photo by the author.

Viewed regionally, the so called I-270 Technology Corridor has an outsized role sustaining good jobs in the Frederick economy. The job centers along the 35-mile corridor from Bethesda to Frederick are pillars of the entire Maryland economy, having exhibited decades of growth in the “innovation economy” of science, technology and government-sponsored research. Frederick has traditionally been an important point on the corridor map, with 11,000 high-wage biomedical technology jobs at the Fort Detrick government research campus and another 1,800 associated with the National Cancer Institute, a branch of NIH. But there are warning signals related to job growth and gridlock of the traditional transportation system.

Other areas have focused on improving their balance of jobs to housing and identified strategies to diversify land uses within suburban employment centers, for example by bringing new housing and retail close to offices.

Meanwhile Montgomery, recognizing the negative impact of traffic and hearing the concerns major employers have expressed about attracting talented young people to the county, is “retrofitting” communities along I-270 to a new transit-oriented design. A likely result is that jobs will migrate from suburban office parks to compact, mixed-use districts, which could make single-car commuting from places like Frederick even more difficult than it is now.

Already, Frederick-area residents across the board express concerns about I-270 gridlock. The State Highway Administration’s 2013 Maryland Mobility Report lists several nearby segments of I-270 among the worst highway bottlenecks statewide. After earlier studies building a case for additional lanes, the state’s 2014-20 capital budget focuses on transit instead.

Frederick has dramatically increased its local bus service, but non-auto transportation for commuters to Montgomery County will need a boost from state government. Photo from the US Department of Transportation.

These are big challenges, but there’s lots of reason to be optimistic

The student-led team recognized quality transportation between Frederick and the job centers to the south as vital for both employers and employees. The Corridor Cities Transitway, a proposal to interconnect numerous Rockville / Gaithersburg activity centers that are not on Metrorail, is a positive sign. If it were built, other Frederick-to-Montgomery transit ideas that are currently being studied, such as major improvements in MARC train service or allowing commuter buses to bypass traffic on the shoulder of I-270, would make sense. Also, regional commuters would have greater incentive to leave their cars behind entirely in favor of the enhanced connectivity.

On the job creation side, the team said focus should be on innovation and tapping the power of small business to grow good jobs in Frederick. This is already happening at the Frederick Innovative Technology Center (FITC). City economic development officials are taking a keen interest in coworking, where flexible, open office space and meeting rooms are made available to IT, graphic design or social media freelancers paying a modest monthly “membership” fee.

Like other places in the Washington region, Frederick can also benefit from recognizing that federal contracting jobs might not be the way of the future.

One way to jump start business in Frederick might be a telecommuting center to link Frederick workers to primary offices located in Montgomery, Washington, or Northern Virginia. Another could be building up the nascent clean energy sector in the city, which is known for photovoltaic production and for geothermal energy.

Frederick has a history of being innovative when it comes to community planning challenges. Notably, intensive planning for the “Golden Mile,” an aging retail district, and the emerging Carroll Creek area on the eastern edge of downtown brought influential developers and design professionals together with local politicians.

Towns and cities throughout the region face similar challenges relating to jobs, transportation and quality of life, but Frederick has a running start to begin addressing them.

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John Enagonio is a candidate for Masters in Real Estate Development from University of Maryland. He lives in Silver Spring and works for a company that preserves affordable housing and strengthens urban communities by renovating historic properties and developing new mixed-income housing.  He has worked in Montgomery County, Washington and Baltimore.