Why Virginia should be surprised to find that Maryland has closed the gap between the two states' economic development programs is a surprise in itself.

In the past four years, Maryland has put together one of the most aggressive marketing and business attraction programs in the Middle Atlantic region. As a neighboring state, Virginia must have been aware of Maryland's emergence in the keenly competitive economic development arena.

Virginia officials apparently became aware of Maryland's progress only after paying $30,000 for a survey of major corporate executives. The 750 executives who responded found little difference between the two states as places in which to do business.

While officials in Virginia's Division of Industrial Development may be chagrined to learn that they had underestimated their neighbors, they admit greater concern over North Carolina's higher ranking in the survey.

Both reactions suggest that Virginia may have to restructure its economic development program if it expects to compete with other Middle Atlantic States for new investment and jobs.

Indeed, an official in the division of industrial development conceded that "our competitive position has slipped."

"We had no preconceived notions" before the survey was conducted, "but we were surprised at Maryland's strong showing," said Hugh D. Keogh, the division's deputy director.

The survey's findings set off a celebration in Annapolis this week. "It's nice of them to do a survey like that," commented a jubilant official at the Maryland Department of Economic and Community Development.

"I would think that, if Virginia finds itself on the same level with Maryland, it would certainly have nothing to be ashamed of," the official added.

Virginia officials obviously failed to do their homework in keeping abreast of Maryland's economic development program and how business looks at that state. That miscalculation can be traced in part to an erroneous assumption about "the general reputation of the [Maryland's] shenanigans," as Keogh put it, referring to the legal problems of past Maryland governors. Under Gov. Harry Hughes, however, Maryland has done a "terrific" job, Keogh concedes.

The major cause of concern in Richmond these days is North Carolina's better reputation as an attractive state in which to do business.

"What we are concerned about is that Virginia is significantly behind North Carolina as to how we are perceived by out-of-state businesses," Keogh said.

Of more importance, however, is a concern over the loss of plants and jobs to the competition, "and we know we've lost a good many to North Carolina," Keogh volunteered.

Manufacturing jobs in Virginia have declined over the past two years, but an increase in high-technology jobs in the state has tended to offset losses in the more traditional industrial-employment sector.

That trend hasn't carried over to the more remote areas of the state, however. And North Carolina apparently is capitalizing on that fact. Rural southwestern Virginia, for example, continues to have difficulty attracting manufacturing jobs.

Indeed, most of the so-called remote areas near the North Carolina border are the cause of much concern for those who direct Virginia's economic development program.

Metropolitan areas of Northern Virginia, Richmond and Tidewater, on the other hand, have fared significantly better, especially in competition for the coveted high-tech jobs and research and development firms.

If Virginia is to re-establish itself as a model for economic development, it will need more than an improved advertising campaign, as Keogh suggests. It's unlikely that Maryland attracted many investors with its pitch to business to "Come for the carrot; stay for the greens."

"We do the advertising to strike an image for the state about its favorable business climate," Keogh said.

But although Virginia employs only seven representatives to call on prospective investors, Maryland deploys a cadre of 17. Both states also have business development offices in Brussels and Tokyo.

"The advertising campaign certainly gets us recognition," observed a Maryland official. "But as in wartime, nothing's better than having foot soldiers walk over the land. It's still the foot soldier that counts."