After growing steadily for a decade, the number of public companies based in the District, Maryland and Virginia is suddenly shrinking.

More than 30 local publicly traded companies have been sold, forced into bankruptcy or delisted by the Nasdaq Stock Market since last year's Washington Business census of regional stocks.

Few new names have emerged to replace them because the market for initial public offerings has dried up.

Only one company, KPMG Consulting Inc., has gone public this year. Over the past 12 months, only 11 IPOs were completed by companies in the region. Today the regional IPO calender is totally blank -- for the first time since initial public offerings began to fuel the entrepreneurial boom of the 1990s

At the same time, the rate of disappearing stocks is accelerating.

Struggling telecom companies are running out of cash and retreating into bankruptcy court. The Nasdaq Stock Market, which has already delisted more than a dozen local companies because of their deteriorating finances and falling stock prices, has warned several others that they too could be dropped. Recognizing that their stocks are unlikely to regain their heights, entrepreneurs are entertaining buyout offers they would have laughed off a year ago.

On Friday, Nasdaq ended trading in shares of PSINet Inc., the Herndon Internet pioneer that is now struggling to survive. PSINet stock has fallen from almost $60 a share to 10 cents in the past 15 months and the company has warned that the stock is likely to become worthless.

On Thursday, Proxicom Inc., another former Internet stock star, agreed to be acquired by Compaq Computer Corp. for $336 million. The price came to $5.75 a share for Proxicom stock, which was first sold to the public at $6.50 a share and hit its high of $62.81 early last year.

At that price, Proxicom would have been worth more like $3.5 billion rather than $336 million. But before the Nasdaq Stock Market's recent revival, Proxicom's stock was selling for less than $2 a share, giving the company a market value of only about $100 million. Compared with that, $336 million looks like a lot of money.

Most of the other acquisitions of local companies in the past year have been at prices that likewise look attractive today but are downright cheap compared to what those companies' stocks were worth before the technology stock bubble began to deflate.

Distress sales are far more common than the premium buyouts that were routine only a year and a half ago.

The region's last hot technology takeover was the $21 billion purchase of Network Solutions Inc., the Internet names registry, by VeriSign Corp. last spring. About the same time, Royal Ahold NV, the Dutch company that owns Giant Food, paid $3.6 billion for U.S. Food Service. The $26 a share Royal Ahold paid was 42 percent higher than the trading price of Columbia-based restaurant supply company's stock.

This year's only comparable cash-out is the $1.2 billion pending acquisition by BB&T Corp. of F&M National Corp., the chain of banks based in Winchester.

F&M has been pursuing a "build and sell" strategy for a decade and earned a premium of about 50 percent on its stock, which was selling for about $27 a share the day before it accepted a stock swap valued at $40.67 a share.

Shareholders in most of the other companies that have been sold have settled for bargain-basement buyouts., a chain of small-market Internet service providers that went public at $22 a share, was taken over for less than half that last September. OneMain's stock was around $8 by the time EarthLink Inc. offered to buy the company in a stock swap worth a little more than $10 a share by the time the deal was completed.

OneMain was financed by self-described "serial entrepreneur" Jonathan Ledecky; by the standard of Ledecky investments, selling out for half the IPO price was a big success. Two other Ledecky companies have filed for reorganization in bankruptcy court this year and have been delisted by Nasdaq.

U.S. Office Products, Ledecky's collection of office-supply dealers, was delisted in March. A month later, Nasdaq stopped trading in U.S.A. Floral Products, a group of wholesale flower distributors. Both stock are now quoted around a penny a share. Ledecky founded the companies, but hasn't had a role in their management for several years.

Delisting and bankruptcy were rare threats to Washington investors until the last year.

Since then, 18 local companies have fallen victim to one -- or both -- of those fates. Companies that go into bankruptcy court to reorganize their finances are routinely dropped from listing on the Nasdaq stock market. In other cases, delisting can be warning that a company is headed for reorganization.

Determined not to become a market for penny stocks, Nasdaq aggressively enforces a policy of dropping stocks that fall to less than $1 a share and do not recover. Last year, Nasdaq delisted 240 stocks. In the first 3 1/2 months of 2001,129 were delisted.

Nasdaq has other standards for deciding whether a stock is eligible for listing, including the company's net worth and the market value of its stock, but the "$1 or out" rule is the one that costs most stocks their listing.

Nasdaq's recent rebound lifted some local technology stocks back above $1. But a quick scan of the stock tables shows there are many others companies that are in danger of delisting.

The delisted stocks live on in limbo, at least for a while. No longer listed on Nasdaq's computers, they can still be bought and sold in the "over the counter" market, where prices are negotiated in phone calls between brokers. Trading tends to dry up for delisted stocks, because its hard to buy or sell significant blocks of stock in the OTC financial market.

In addition, many brokerages actively discourage customers from holding stocks that don't meet Nasdaq listing requirements

Neither delisting nor bankruptcy are necessarily fatal.

Criimi Mae Inc. of Rockville came out of bankruptcy 10 days ago after an 18-month reorganization that kept alive its mortgage investment business. Stockholders, however, suffered badly. Criimi shares that were trading for $14 to $16 before the bankruptcy closed Friday at 67 cents on the New York Stock Exchange.

Williams Industries Inc., a Virginia construction company that was delisted by Nasdaq in 1994, took four years to rebuild its finances and regain its listing. Williams's stock closed Friday at $3.42, and last month the company achieved another milestone on the road to recovery: Davenport & Co., a Richmond brokerage that specializes in regional stocks, began not only making a market in Williams stock but also providing analyst coverage of the shares.

But successful bankruptcy reorganizations and the recovery of lost listing status are exceptions to the rule. Crown Books Corp. recently demonstrated how precarious the process is by filing for bankruptcy protection a second time. This time, Crown won't survive intact.

Executives of companies such as E.spire Communications Inc., which filed for bankruptcy protection last month, argue passionately that restructuring under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy law will allow their companies to survive.

Metrocall Inc., the Alexandria paging company, is counting on the bankruptcy process as a vehicle for merging with WebLink Wireless, a Dallas-based competitor that's also in financial trouble.

When they announced plans to merge this month , Metrocall and WebLink said they would first file for bankruptcy. The bankruptcy plan, which the companies said would be ready by mid-May, will somehow attempt to cut a deal with creditors that will let the companies to escape some of their debts and continue to operate their businesses.

It remains to be seen whether Metrocall and WebLink can make bankruptcy a bridge to the future, but the market has already decided that the gambit is a long shot for stockholders.

Delisted by Nasdaq on April 12, Metrocall's stock has drifted down to 9 cents a share. WebLink shares haven't traded since the merger was announced April 2, when they too were down to less than a 10 cents.

Jerry Knight's e-mail address is