Southern Maryland may have lost high- and low-wage jobs during the past year, but a Towson University economist told some 300 business people gathered Tuesday at the fifth annual Charles County Economic Development Summit that the county's job market tells "a really cool story."

Though most residents still commute outside Charles for work, economist Anirban Basu reported that a disproportionate number of new jobs within the county include higher-paying construction and professional positions with salaries averaging $619 per week.

"The jobs being added are better than the already existing jobs," Basu said. "That's very good news, and it's very rare."

A who's who of Charles business executives and politicians filled the Waldorf Jaycees Community Center to hear somewhat congratulatory reports on the state of the county's economy. They also got a dose of partisan views as lieutenant governor candidate Adm. Charles R. Larson explained Democratic gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's vision for Maryland's economy as it enters tougher times.

The county's economic health and future remained the focus of the five-hour event. Between the first quarters of 2001 and 2002, Charles registered 1.5 percent employment growth, ranking it ninth in the state. In comparison, Calvert and St. Mary's counties ranked third and fourth, with 5 percent and 4.6 percent growth, respectively.

Charles also had a higher percentage of trade, transportation and utilities jobs than suburban Maryland, according to the Charles County Economic Development Commission's 2002 Annual Report.

But Basu argued that the county's smaller percentage growth did not tell the whole picture. He said the steady growth of residential building permits and recent influx of younger families, combined with 26 percent more jobs in the professional and technical support sector, constituted good news for the county.

Some retail and distribution jobs have been lost, he said, but the overall quality of jobs is improving.

"It's not always quantity of jobs" that is important, Basu said. "Quality matters more."

The county also made "modest gains" during the past year in its economic development goals, reported Mike Middleton, chairman of the Charles County Economic Development Commission.

The commission worked to help keep La Plata businesses open after the April 28 tornado. It also developed an independent Charles County Technology Council to support the growth of technology businesses.

Middleton said there was also a sense of momentum in the business projects planned for Charles. The proposed Waldorf Technology Park site has received water and sewer lines and has been rezoned as an employment park. A 94-acre parcel on Berry Road (Route 228) also has received the necessary zoning approval to proceed as an office park.

In addition, the commission is anticipating that construction will begin this spring for the first 60,000-square-foot building in the White Plains Office Campus on Route 301.

Despite the busy outlook, no significant new office or industrial space was completed during fiscal 2002, according to the commission's report.

Still, Middleton remained upbeat: "The good news is, we're making progress."

Aubrey H. Edwards, left, executive director of the Charles County Economic Development Commission, greets Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Charles R. Larson at Tuesday's economic summit in Waldorf.