Promoting metropolitan Washington and metropolitan Baltimore to business prospects as a single economic market is a challenge made more difficult by deeply ingrained regional parochial interests.

This was very much in evidence last week at the annual meeting of the Washington-Baltimore Regional Association, an alliance of business leaders formed five years ago to promote the two metropolitan areas as a common market.

In one of the more candid comments of the evening, Luther H. Hodges Jr., chairman of Washington Bancorp and outgoing chairman of the WBRA, exposed the most troublesome aspect of WBRA's economic development mission.

"I have determined that everyone may not be a total convert to regional economics," Hodges pointedly stated in remarks to business and government leaders. "Sure it reads great . . . makes tremendous sense to me as a banker and to most any business with which I am familiar," Hodges said of the common-market concept advocated by many business leaders in the two metropolitan areas.

Much to the chagrin of WBRA members, the concept hasn't been fully embraced by some of the region's elected officials. Perhaps that was one of the unstated reasons for inviting the governors of Maryland and Virginia and the mayors of Washington and Baltimore to the WBRA's annual meeting in Annapolis last week.

The four elected officials were invited ostensibly to discuss their commitment to economic development in the region and how their respective jurisdictions might benefit economically from cooperative efforts with the WBRA. Indeed, the four men did discuss economic development, albeit too often in purely parochial terms. They signed a nonbinding proclamation, nevertheless, in support of regional economic development objectives.

It's apparent, however, that WBRA's biggest challenge in promoting the Washington-Baltimore region as a consolidated market for economic development is to convince key elected officials that the concept not only is viable, but will benefit their political subdivisions. Even though the WBRA is about to enter the second half of its first decade as a catalyst for regional economic development, selling the common-market concept in the region hasn't been easy.

As an example, Hodges observed that Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer and Washington Mayor Marion Barry have "virtually ignored our regional concept. Their concern, instead, has most understandably focused on the very real plight of the center city, the erosion of its tax base and the enormous burdens of the urban services they provide."

Although acknowledging the importance of "regional understanding," Schaefer fell short of the mark in applying the concept in broad regional terms. He seemed more interested in touting and defending Baltimore, pointing up major differences between the business and economic climates in his city and in metropolitan Washington.

". . . I see a mass transit system that goes all over the Washington area, yet there is only one line in Baltimore City -- one line. Look at Baltimore. . . . We've got to do a lot of things on our own. Think back 15 to 20 years ago. Where was the city then? It was a city no one bothered coming in. None of the business people were investing in it ; none of the houses were being sold in the City of Baltimore. Something that wasn't even talked about was tourism."

Barry fell into a similar trap, citing a litany of commercial developments that have bolstered the District's economy, while attempting to dispel several "myths" about the nation's capital. "I have the same small reservations about the Common Market that Mayor Schaefer has," Barry volunteered at one point. "We mayors are facing problems of unemployment, of jobs, of housing and other difficulties that we feel must be our first priority."

Gov. Harry Hughes of Maryland and Gov. Gerald L. Baliles of Virginia, although strongly committed to fostering competition between the two states, demonstrated a better understanding, as well as support, of the common-market concept.

"Just as the Chesapeake Bay embraces an environmental common market, so does the Baltimore-Washington region embrace an economic common market," declared Baliles. "Our policies and plans must reflect that simple reality."

Hughes, adopting a similar stance, promised more meetings with Baliles "to see if there are some common grounds that we can come together on, primarily with regard to the transportation issues of the region."

Thus, both governors, at least, seemed to agree with two points made by Hodges: "Only through far-sighted leadership of our elected officials can we obtain lasting solutions which are in the best interests of the region's overall economic development. . . . We must work together to ensure jurisdictional ties and parochial interests do not obscure the larger goals of the region as a whole."