Charles County should try to attract technology firms and health services companies to counter a shortage of high-wage jobs, a consultant told a gathering of business leaders and county officials.

Research economist Daraius Irani also told the Charles County Economic Development Summit, at its Oct. 26 meeting, that the county should form city centers to bolster "a sense of place" and counter a reputation for bad sprawl development.

Irani was among a half-dozen speakers at the day-long economic development conference at Charles County Community College near La Plata. The gathering was the second in a planned annual series.

Speakers said the gathering was a chance to assess the county's track record and set the tone for economic development--a priority as the county struggles to provide roads, schools, policing and other services for a rapidly growing population.

The structure of the county's economy is typical for communities that experience growth led by housing expansion, with jobs coming later, said analyst Stephen Fuller, who studies local economies in the Washington region.

He compared Charles County's economy with those of Fairfax and Montgomery counties decades ago, and with the current economies of outer-ring counties such as Frederick County in Maryland, and Prince William and Loudoun counties in Virginia.

"You're not an urban county yet. You're suburbanizing. You may not even be suburban yet," said Fuller, a professor of public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax County.

Fuller said Charles County's is "a small economy," producing roughly $2.3 billion of gross economic activity annually--or about 1 percent of the Washington metropolitan area's gross economic output.

Charles County's job mix--heavy on retail jobs and on services for county residents--will likely change as the economy matures, Fuller said.

Eventually the county will provide more highly paid services, he said. But, Fuller said, "It will take more than seven years to become a high-wage economy."

Fuller called on county leaders to work to attract new firms, strengthen the education system and improve transportation links to the region. "We clearly need to link this county into the rest of the region," he said.

Irani, the economist, works for RESI, an economics study institute based at Towson University in Baltimore County. He found that low-paying jobs dominate recent employment growth in Charles.

"Charles County has experienced growth in retail and residential service industries, but its rate of high-wage job growth is below that of the state, the D.C. metro region and the nation," Irani wrote in a 40-page report.

Between 1992 and 1998, 47 percent of the county's employment growth occurred in the retail sector, Irani said. The comparable figure for the Washington metropolitan area was 13 percent, he said.

As a result of the concentration of jobs in retail and other low-wage sectors, the average annual income in Charles County is $25,595, roughly 40 percent below the metro average of $42,280, Irani said.

"Based on these figures, the average worker in Charles County cannot afford a $100,000 home and may not even be able to afford any type of residence in the county," Irani wrote.

He said the county's median home price--the point at which half the homes are more expensive--is $134,000.

County commissioners recently restricted town house development--"precisely the type of housing that can accommodate the types of workers that currently work in Charles County," Irani said.

He said he thought the county can benefit from its proximity to the nation's capital and the high-tech cluster blossoming around the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, a center of defense aviation research in neighboring St. Mary's County.

Irani called for a mix of housing to accommodate younger workers, waterfront development for upscale residential communities and support for high-tech incubators that could attract spinoff growth from the Patuxent River Naval Air Station.

County commissioners have approved a zoning category meant to lead to urban-style neighborhoods with shops, apartment buildings and public spaces. A committee is looking into possible uses for Charles County's 165 miles of shoreline, which lie mainly along the Potomac River.