In outlining their interstate banking strategies two years ago, officials at Norfolk's Sovran Financial Corp. and Richmond's Crestar Financial Corp. described their potential growth market as the "crescent." Sovran subsequently called it the "Chesapeake crescent." Others have referred to it as the "golden crescent."

It was also in 1985 that George and Eunice Grier of the Grier Partnership, a Washington demographics and economic consulting firm, began advancing the theory that the nation's third largest metropolitan market is the "crescent" formed by Baltimore, Washington, Richmond, Norfolk and Newport News.

According to the Griers, the crescent is "an emerging economic colossus that stretches, almost uninterrupted" from the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania to the boundary separating Virginia and North Carolina.

Most of Virginia's bank holding companies continue to emphasize their growth strategy in terms of the vast crescent-shaped geographic region as a natural economic market. The concept seems not to have caught on, however, in the marketing divisions or executive suites of other major businesses located in the region.

That's likely to change as evidence supporting the Griers' theory becomes more apparent. When it does, retailers, wholesale distributors and real estate developers will be touting the crescent with as much fanfare as a circus barker.

Notwithstanding a fair amount of skepticism about the Griers' theory, the results of the next census are likely to confirm the emergence of the crescent as a single economic market.

The crescent isn't yet recognized by the federal Office of Management and Budget as a unified or consolidated metropolitan statistical area (CMSA). It may not even be defined as such after the 1990 census, the Griers noted two years ago. But enough of the pieces may be in place by the year 2000.

Already it is widely expected among elected officials and business leaders that the Washington and Baltimore standard metropolitan statistical areas (SMSA) will be designated as a new CMSA after the 1990 census. With a combined population of nearly 6 million the two metropolitan areas would be the fourth largest CMSA. If considered as a single market now, it"Housing is much more reasonable here than in Washington. A lot of people will take that trade-off and commute to Washington. Also, the pay is higher in Washington." -- Jo Love Willis would be the fourth largest consumer market.

But the CMSA designation would only confirm what most business leaders in the two metropolitan areas have been saying for the past six or seven years. The economic tie between the Washington-Baltimore CMSA and the area from Fredericksburg to Norfolk is less apparent to those who don't yet subscribe to the crescent theory, however.

The Griers make a fairly persuasive point in an updated version of their original premise. Only two jurisdictions -- Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County in Virginia -- keep theChesapeake crescent from being a continuous metropolitan corridor, the Griers explain in the latest issue of Marketrends, the newsletter of the Greater Washington Research Center.

Spotsylvania County officials and the Griers anticipate that the county, which includes Fredericksburg, will become part of the Washington SMSA in 1990, just as Stafford County did in 1980. Census criteria for metropolitan status, the Griers pointed out, are based heavily on commuting patterns.

Officials in Spotsylvania County estimate that nearly 20,000 of the county's 40,000 residents commute daily to work in the Washington area and Richmond. Most commute to the District and Northern Virginia, many of them to military installations such as Fort Belvoir and the Quantico Marine base.

Neither Fredericksburg nor Spotsylvania has experienced widespread economic growth in formation of new business, according to Jo Love Willis, director of tourism in Fredericksburg.

But she added, "Housing is much more reasonable here than in Washington. A lot of people will take that trade-off and commute to Washington. Also, the pay is higher in Washington."

George Grier sees the growing labor shortage in the Washington area as another reason for so many commuters from a distance of 50 miles. In any event, he describes this massive commuting from the geographic center of the crescent as one of the "complementary" factors that join dissimilar economies in the crescent.

Commuters from Spotsylvania County, he said, "take their money back home and they tend to make the economy better for local businesses" in their communities.

Those businesses respond to increased demand for merchandise and services, further expanding the local economy. That, Grier added, usually creates demand for more housing, attracting developers.

George Grier predicted in a recent interview that the four major metropolitan areas in the crescent will grow together just as those of Washington and Baltimore did.

Changes in the labor market, extended commuting patterns, expanding populations in communities such as Spotsylvania and Stafford counties will facilitate the growth of a contiguous economic market, he said.

"I think that by the time a lot of people realize that it's happening it will have happened. It may have already," he mused.

Bankers were the first to recognize the phenomenon. Major distributors locating in Stafford and Spotsylvania counties, including Peoples Drug Stores Inc. and A. Smith Bowman distillers, recognize it.

So do home builders. The Chesapeake crescent is taking shape, indeed