When George and Eunice Grier came to town in 1960, the Capital Beltway was a planner's dream, the Metro system was unimagined -- and experts on the local economy were as scarce as Washington Senators' victories.

Not that there was much for them to study. The few statistics available about the region were squirreled away in bureaucrats' offices. The local economy consisted principally of the federal government, a few hotels, a handful of local retailers and the occasional law firm.

Today, with the Washington metropolitan area a full-fledged economic entity, a host of statistics have bloomed to measure, describe and forecast it. And the Griers have become the best known and most quoted among a growing and increasingly influential cadre of experts who watch the ups and downs of that economy -- these days, mostly the downs.

Thirty years ago, "even when the statistics were available, very little was known about them," said George Grier. "Now, we have better numbers here than other cities do."

The role of Washington's economy-measurers assumed new importance in the 1980s, as the metropolitan area boomed and local jurisdictions struggled to cope with needs they had not foreseen. But now, with the local economy in a state of uncomfortable deceleration, the voices of the experts are being called on more and more to interpret the uncertainty and discern a future direction.

Their message these days is that, despite softness in the area's real estate and defense industries, the outlook for the local economy remains positive. The breathing space created by overbuilding and federal-spending cutbacks may actually be helpful, they say, allowing the region to catch up to the consequences of the frenzied growth of the 1960s.

"We're growing at the rate of 60,000 jobs a year," said Stephen S. Fuller, chairman of the department of urban and regional planning at George Washington University. "That puts us second in the country to Los Angeles {for job growth in urban areas}. Why should we feel bad about being second?"

This optimism is sometimes difficult to square with the cries of local executives, who tend to look at the local economy through the lenses of their own troubled businesses and industries.

Some small companies, for example, say their banks, trying to reduce risky loans, are cutting access to credit. Retailers complain of flat sales. Defense contracts to the region are declining. And most visibly, the real estate industry suffers from severe overbuilding.

Recent statistics have been mixed. Thursday, the Virginia Employment Commission said that that state's unemployment rate fell to 3.4 percent in April on an unadjusted basis, the lowest April level in 17 years. The jobless rate for Northern Virginia was by far the lowest in the

state at 1.6 percent. Maryland figures will be released this week.

Then on Friday, new figures showed an increase in the unemployment rate in the District to 5.8 percent in April. The jobless rate for the region as a whole declined a bit, to 2.5 percent, but the growth in metropolitan employment was slow enough for experts to predict that the area will not add as many jobs this year as it did last year.

With the U.S. economy teetering on the edge of lethargy and some area industries showing new vulnerability, Washington is not immune to a slowdown.

"It looks to me like we are kind of on a bubble," said Richard Groner, director of labor market information for the D.C. Department of Employment Services and another Washington economy maven. "If the U.S. economy turns downward, we are ready to go with it."

Measuring the Washington economy has become so sophisticated that it is possible to say now with relative certainty how many local residents are working, how much money they make, how much money they spend, where they spend it, how far prices have risen and how much the federal government spends here, among other things.

And new figures are coming. By the end of this year, statistical indexes now under development at the University of the District of Columbia and at Crestar Bank in Richmond will describe the extent of economic activity in the city each month and predict the future of the area economy.

That kind of sophistication was unimaginable when the Griers arrived in Washington in 1960 for George's one-year appointment with the Brookings Institution. He and Eunice already had earned a reputation as a husband-and-wife research team specializing in urban problems in Philadelphia and New York.

Eunice quickly was hired to work for the predecessor organization of the Greater Washington Research Center. George joined her after his Brookings appointment expired and after a brief tenure at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

Today, Eunice works principally as a consultant to the research center while George remains on the center's staff. Over the years, together and separately, they have produced a series of groundbreaking reports, among them an early documentation of the local economic effects of the "baby bust" and a highly touted effort to update population figures between the once-every-10-years U.S. Census counts.

Most recently, George prepared a report predicting continued strong population growth for the area, and Eunice wrote a report questioning the District's ability to generate enough tax revenue to pay for an anticipated increase in demand for city services.

"We always do things together," George said. "If Eunice is working on a project, she will hand it to me and I take a few shots at it. If I do something, I give it to her and she's my most severe critic. She sends me back to the drawing board."

Perhaps one reason the Griers are able to explain what is going on with the local economy is that neither is mired in the technicalities of economics. George has his degree in social psychology, Eunice in journalism. Their work, moreover, lends itself to comprehensibility: Their reports are concise, clear and filled with conclusions.

Still, the Griers admit that they, like others, failed to predict or even appreciate the frenzied growth of the 1980s, which now has local jurisdictions scrambling to catch up on school construction and road building. It didn't become apparent to the Griers until 1988 that the area was growing so fast that the population target for 1990 already had been reached.

"We didn't have a handle on what was happening to us when it was happening," said George.

While the Griers have been watching the local economy for nearly three decades, they virtually had the field to themselves until the early 1980s. Before then, times were so good that little self-examination was needed.

"Until the 1981-82 recession, nobody ever had to worry about this economy," said Atlee E. Shidler, president of the research center. "Not that it didn't have soft spots of poverty, but basically Washington prospered when the nation was in trouble, either war or economic trouble. But in the recession of 1981 and 1982, people felt it."

In 1983, Shidler asked GWU's Fuller and other experts to participate in a round-table discussion on the local economy. Out of that grew a number of studies, including a series Fuller began on federal procurement in the Washington area. The first one to draw attention showed a decline in area federal contract spending of $828 million, to $10.5 billion in fiscal 1988.

"No one was interested until it started going down," Fuller said.

Since then, Fuller has become something of a celebrity on the business-group luncheon and dinner circuit as executives search for guidance in navigating the local economy.

While there is no formal organization of Washington's economy-watchers, Fuller, the Griers and Groner get together occasionally and sometimes confer by telephone. Fuller and the Griers analyze figures. Groner produces them: His division at the D.C. Department of Employment Services (DES) is in charge of calculating unemployment and employment figures, not only for the District but for the metropolitan area as a whole.

From his threadbare office, Groner has become not just a respected member of the local economist network, but perhaps the leading expert on the unique economy of the District itself.

"It's probably the only inner city in the country that's treated {statistically} as a state," Groner said.

Reporters who call experts around the area about economic issues often are referred to Groner. Under him, "the DES has become increasingly sophisticated," said the research center's Shidler. "Dick is very wise, a very good observer of the region."

Observing the District and the region will be a good deal easier in a few months, when two new measures of economic activity are completed.

Economists at UDC's Center for Business and Economic Statistics, which opened last December, are developing an index that will track production in all sectors of the D.C. economy, as the Federal Reserve's industrial-production index measures national manufacturing.

"The purpose is to measure overall economic activity in a rough way that is consistent from month to month," said Ray D. Whitman, director of the center.

But the District's economy includes a high proportion of service industries, whose output is harder to measure. So the index will include such elements as law firm employment, Washington Post advertising lineage, Amtrak passengers and other nonproduction economic measures.

The UDC index will track current business activity, but another new index being crafted in Richmond is designed to predict the economic future of the entire Washington metropolitan area.

Alan M. Gayle, chief economist of Crestar Bank, and colleague Christine Chmura are working on an index that, like the U.S. index of leading indicators, will foreshadow major economic changes. Along with it, they are developing a "coincident" index, which will reflect current business conditions.

The concept of a leading-indicator index is a controversial one. The U.S. index has sometimes changed direction with no subsequent change in the national economy -- in the trade, the joke is that it has predicted nine out of the last five recessions. But Gayle and Chmura already have developed leading and coincident indexes for the state of Virginia (they both are on the decline at the moment), and so far seem to have tracked economic activity fairly closely.

The accounting firm of Grant Thornton already operates a relatively simple index for the metropolitan economy. It uses seven statistics -- business failures, business startups, construction permits, average weekly hours worked, nonagricultural employment, retail sales and national money supply.

It is designed both to predict and to explain. But the index, like many of the figures available on the Washington economy, suffers from one failing: a long lag time. The index for the first quarter of 1990 will not be released until the end of the second.

Such delays are not uncommon in the world of economic statistics, and they may help explain why even the best gurus in the area miss the boat sometimes.

"One of the biggest problems right now is the slow availability of some of the statistics," said George Grier. "We've never really had a good handle on what was going to happen next."


Key indicators of the Washington-area economy:

METRO EMPLOYMENT: Released the first Friday of every month, for the month two months before, by the office of D.C. Mayor Marion Barry. Includes employment and unemployment for the District and the Washington metropolitan area. Not adjusted for seasonal variations.

MARYLAND EMPLOYMENT: Released the first week of each month, for the month two months before, by the Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Development. Includes employment and unemployment for the state, the Washington suburban area and each county. Not adjusted for seasonal variations.

VIRGINIA EMPLOYMENT. Released the last week of the month for the previous month by the Virginia Employment Commission. Includes employment and unemployment for the state, the Washington suburban area and each county and jurisdiction. Not adjusted for seasonal variations.

INFLATION: Released in the third week of every other month for the month two months previous by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Includes the Consumer Price Index and changes in its components for the metro area. Not adjusted.

INCOME PER CAPITA: Preliminary figures released in April and revised in August for the previous year by the Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis. Includes per-capita personal pre-tax income for Virginia, Maryland and other states, as well as the District. Not adjusted for inflation.

RETAIL SALES: State figures released on the 25th of the month, for the month two months previous, by the U.S. Census Bureau. Includes retail sales for durable goods, autos and department store sales. Figures are released for Maryland and Virginia; District figures are available on request for a fee.