GAITHERSBURG, Md. (AP) — Sidney Katz has been the mayor of Gaithersburg since 1998 and has worked for the city government since the 1970s.
He grew up in that city, right in the center of Montgomery County. He has seen it evolve over time, and lately, he's seen a growth surge.
"We've seen Gaithersburg become a place that was a very small place, to a much larger place," said Katz.
Last year alone, the city's population grew by about 4.4 percent, to 65,690, based on U.S. Census Bureau estimates. That made it the eighth-fastest growing city in the country, and one of only two cities east of Mississippi to make the Census Bureau's top 15 list.
So why the influx?
Fred Katz, a businessman, adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins University Carey Business School and a Montgomery County resident (no relation to Sidney), said it comes down to two factors: jobs and accessibility.
"You can live up there and go into the District (of Columbia) in a reasonable amount of time," he said referring to the nearby Shady Grove Metro station. "If you can live in Gaithersburg and drive to work in 10 minutes, it's even nicer."
And more people have been able to do just that, with a number of large, high-paying companies bringing their headquarters to the city, or opening large offices near there.
Gaithersburg already benefits from its proximity to the national capital and federal agencies with nearby headquarters. And in recent years, its relationship with the medical and life sciences industries has strengthened.
"We have a very thriving biotech community," said Tony Tomasello, Gaithersburg's city planner. "One of the positive offshoots of that is salaries are strong."
The 2,000-employee MedImmune gained another 300 positions last year, when its parent company, AstraZeneca, relocated employees from Delaware. It seems that those jobs should remain for now, said Katz, after a potential acquisition of AstraZeneca by Pfizer fell apart in May.
In 2012, Kaiser Permanente opened its largest facility in the state of Maryland, converting a 200,000-square-foot office building into an ambulatory care center.
Adventist HealthCare relocated its headquarters to Gaithersburg in 2013, moving from Rockville, as Novavax Inc. did in 2012. And Emergent BioSolutions announced late last year that it would do the same.
All three of them won six-figure incentives from the Gaithersburg Economic Opportunities fund. The city also gave awards in 2012 to GeneDx and Sodexo, so they would stick around.
There's no way to know if the employees of these companies can account for the city's population growth last year, said Tom Lonergan, Gaithersburg's director of economic development. Because they arrived only last year, the Census Bureau, and therefore the city, doesn't know much about the city's newest residents.
Lonergan did point to the recent residential developments where he has seen success, specifically in apartment complexes like Hidden Creek and Gaithersburg Station, as the potential dwellings of these new constituents.
More than 90 percent of the apartments in those two relatively new complexes are leased, he said. One-bedroom units at Hidden Creek start at about $1,500 a month, and those at Gaithersburg Station start just under $1,400.
Sidney Katz touted other successful developments as well, inspired by a neo-traditional, mixed-use strategy that combines homes, shopping and recreation in one area. He named Lakelands, Rio Washingtonian Center and Crown Farm as examples.
But, Sidney Katz, Lonergan and Tomasello admitted, there remains room for improvement within the city limits. Some developments and neighborhoods have faded over the decades.
That includes the area along Frederick Avenue, Maryland 355 in Gaithersburg, the focus of a recent study by the Sage Policy Group, commissioned by the city with support from the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development.
That study found that the median income of residents in that area, as well as their educational levels, was falling behind residents in the rest of the city. It pointed out that this part of Gaithersburg was much less accessible by public transportation than other parts.
The Maryland 355 corridor, the report said, is losing market share from some of the nearby mixed-use developments that city officials listed as strengths in the area. But it also said that the structures along Frederick Avenue were not deteriorated enough to level and begin again.
It described the corridor as "stagnant."
The study suggested some improvements as well, such as beautifying the area, enhancing its retail and commercial offerings and setting it up as a prime location for a signature office building.
"The city has been focusing some renewed attention and effort along the (Maryland) 355 corridor," said Lonergan. "It's not failing, but it's definitely fading."
The city officials also mentioned Olde Towne Gaithersburg as another priority area for modernization.
Lakeforest Mall is yet another area where they would like to see improvement.
But that property is privately owned. A Connecticut-based asset management firm bought it in 2012 and pledged to make $20 million in improvements. Lonergan said that city officials have meeting with the owners and other parties involved to discuss those plans.
"We would definitely like to see something happen at Lakeforest," said Tomasello. "It's quite a large parcel."
It's clear that more, highly-paid people are coming to Gaithersburg, said Fred Katz, but he doesn't expect the city to catch up with some of its wealthy neighbors.
"I don't think it's joining the Bethesda, Potomac league," he said. "They're not zoning the real estate for the McMansions."
To be sure, it would take a major demographic transformation for Gaithersburg to match Potomac and Bethesda.
Potomac, for instance, had a median income of $173,289, according to the Census Bureau's five-year estimate in 2012. Bethesda's was $141,817. Both had poverty rates under 3 percent.
Gaithersburg's median salary was $81,178 and its poverty rate was 8.1 percent — both worse than the overall Montgomery County numbers.
Fred Katz said that people are flocking to Gaithersburg just as they once did to Rockville, which saw its population shoot up between 2000 and 2010. He expects that movement to continue north, perhaps up to Frederick, and thinks Gaithersburg will soon plateau.
But while it lasts, Lonergan said, the more the merrier.
"I think that's a question that needs to be answered jurisdiction by jurisdiction. In Gaithersburg's case, it's very much a positive," he said. "This is generally a gainfully employed, well-educated workforce that's moving into the community. That, coupled with a growing tax base in the developments, that's a win-win for the city."
Information from: The Daily Record of Baltimore, http://www.mddailyrecord.com