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Gilchrest goes to bat for jobs program that aided Eastern Shore workers


SALISBURY -- Becky Shores and Wayne Cater think their jobs are safe. But the federal program that helped keep them employed is not.

It is the Economic Development Administration, a product of the Great Society. Thirty years old this year, it probably will not reach 31 because it is on almost every congressional budget cutter's hit list.

But not Wayne T. Gilchrest's.

The Eastern Shore Republican, new chairman of the economic development subcommittee of the Transportation Committee, has held two hearings on the EDA. He has come away not sounding like the breed of Republicans now dominant on Capitol Hill, with their zeal to reduce the reach of government.

He agrees that "government should generally stay out of people's lives." But he also thinks that a good idea can be taken too far, that sometimes government action is positive.

Mr. Gilchrest's favorable view of EDA reflects the tension in Congress -- the push and pull between the need to cut spending and the difficulty that members have in carrying out cuts that hurt folks back home. Although Mr. Gilchrest concedes that the EDA's budget could be reduced somewhat, he argues for saving the agency.

"My inclination is that the program has a role to play," he said. "We've heard an awful lot of success stories [about EDA], from North Carolina to Massachusetts."

Under normal circumstances, Mr. Gilchrest might be able to save the EDA from oblivion, because the chairman of the full committee, Rep. Bud Shuster of Pennsylvania, also favors it. But these are not normal times.

"The atmosphere on the Hill is never going to be better to bring the government down to size," said a spokesman for Rep. Gerald B. H. Solomon, chairman of the Republicans' informal Balanced Budget Committee. "Support by the full committee [on behalf of EDA] might be powerful, but that might be trumped by the attitude of the new freshman class. They have less a sense of reverence for these things."

Back on the factory floor, far removed from Washington, Mrs. Shores says she owes her job to EDA. "I don't think they should cut it," she said.

Mrs. Shores, 43, and Mr. Cater, 36, go back a long way: Twenty years ago, she bundled shirts and he was a cutter for the Manhattan Shirt Co. About 10 years ago, their jobs went overseas as the garment industry died on the lower Eastern Shore.

Within weeks, Grumman Aerospace moved into the building and began making avionics for jets. Suddenly, the two were in defense work.

Today, Mrs. Shores assembles electrical circuits for jets and Mr. Cater is a supervisor in the building. It houses yet another new business -- Salisbury Technologies, which owes its existence to the EDA.

Most of the work done by the 74 employees who remain from the Grumman operation, which ended last year, is still defense-related, done under contract to Grumman.

But Edwin W. Urban, who runs the place, hopes to tilt the company toward nondefense work. His job, he says, is to find the access ramp to the "information superhighway."

"Contracts could be for fiber-optics cables, anything electrical," he said.

The Economic Development Administration was established in 1965 to generate jobs in depressed rural areas, through loans to businesses and by financing improvements such as roads and rail lines.

In the 1970s, the EDA dispensed billions of dollars. President Jimmy Carter used it and other programs to fight recession. Today, with a budget of about $440 million, the EDA aims to ease conversion from defense to civilian production, the process occurring at Salisbury Technologies.

Still, most Republicans are determinedly against it. Mr. Solomon, whose balanced budget committee has been identifying programs for obliteration, wants to snuff it out.

Rep. Porter J. Goss, R-Fla., who has drawn up a list of cuts, said BTC of EDA: "The purpose of the program was good once, but today, in terms of human anatomy, this is an appendix." Other agencies, he said, like the Small Business Administration, do work similar to EDA's.

Marvin Kosters, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, described the EDA as "a pork project," and "an interesting example of corporate welfare."

Mr. Gilchrest said he understands the need for budget cutting. But in seeking to preserve the EDA, he says: "At this time, especially with the base closings, we need some federal money out there to stimulate economic activity."

Mr. Urban, 52, was Grumman's plant manager during its 10-year stay in Salisbury. He liked the Eastern Shore. So he suggested to Grumman that it sell the plant to someone who could convert it to nondefense production.

Thus began the birth of Salisbury Technologies. First, a buyer had to be found. He was John C. Corella Jr., president of a company that supplies cable to AT&T.; The 74 former Grumman employees, all that remained from nearly 600 when Grumman was at its peak, formed the work force of the new company.

For start-up money, the company turned to the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, which administers EDA funds. "Where the EDA was important to us was to demonstrate that we had access to these funds," Mr. Urban said.

(EDA loans have helped elsewhere on the Eastern Shore. In Crisfield, Carvel Hall Inc., a cutlery manufacturer, would have closed but for a $290,000 loan it got from EDA in 1990, according to the company.)

Gwen Camper, 38, one of the five original garment workers still in the building, is a supervisor. She was the sole supporter for her three children when the Manhattan Shirt Co. closed in 1985. She joined Grumman, but last year, she had to again face the prospect of unemployment.

"I felt twice cursed," she said. "Cursed that I knew the place was going to close down," then seeing it almost happen again. She thought for a moment and added: "But then there are two ways to look at it. I was cursed, but I was rescued."

At that moment, Mr. Urban walked across the factory floor and said that AT&T; had just called and asked whether Salisbury Technologies would like to bid on a job to provide AT&T; with cables. "Probably worth a million plus," he said.

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