Poorest county revives a bit


PRINCESS ANNE - Last week, Wal-Mart announced that it would build a distribution center near here that could add as many 500 jobs in Somerset County. As good as that news is for Maryland's poorest county, business leaders are expecting more.

Declines in family farming and the Eastern Shore seafood industry have stalled economic opportunity in the area for generations. Now, economic development officials in the county of 25,000 say, there are signs of a change with an upsurge of interest that the county hopes will translate into new businesses.

"What we're seeing is really a snowball effect," said Daniel K. Thompson, the county's economic development director. "Since Labor Day, we've mailed out complete information kits to 40 different businesses who've inquired about Somerset, everything from retail to small manufacturing companies. Those are just prospects, but it gives an idea of the level of interest."

Amid a real estate boom that has condominium projects sprouting in the waterfront town of Crisfield, officials say renewed commercial investment includes a grocery store strip-mall and a General Dynamics Corp. field office where the defense contractor has a half dozen employees upgrading emergency management networks.

Just across the state line, near Chincoteague, Va., a year-old regional space port designed to launch satellites and spacecraft for the Air Force is creating work for Somerset residents.

Two boat manufacturers that could bring the county 150 or more jobs toured the county last week. Thompson said one of the companies has an option on a 10-acre site on Deal Island.

Another boost in manufacturing jobs, now nearly nonexistent, is expected as the old Carvel Hall cutlery plant outside Crisfield changes hands. Shuttered for four years, it could soon be producing portable aircraft stairs, county officials say.

Millions of dollars in state and federal financial incentives sealed the Wal-Mart deal, which had been rumored for months as officials negotiated the company's move to a 178-acre site three miles south of Princess Anne, the county seat.

The 450,000-square-foot warehouse center, expected to open in the fall of 2006, could become the county's fourth-largest employer, behind such economic anchors as the medium-security Eastern Correctional Institution and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, each of which has about 900 employees.

Maybe the best way to gauge Wal-Mart's effect is to do some math, said John K. Phoebus, a Crisfield attorney who represents developers converting an old Mrs. Paul's frozen seafood plant into the town's largest condominium project.

Wal-Mart's average wage of about $12 an hour is about 26 percent higher than the county average of $9.54 an hour. That could help lift the median household income, which at $32,250 last year was the lowest in the state.

"Wal-Mart is going to have a dramatic impact," Phoebus said. "It could easily lower our unemployment rate [of 6.5 percent] by a full percentage point. Condominiums are great, waterfront homes are great, but this has more impact on the average resident of Somerset County. It's huge."

The catalyst, business leaders believe, was the publicity surrounding a dogged effort to start ferry service that would link Crisfield to the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay.

After three years of fits and starts, a consultant's final report on running commercial ferries that would haul cars, trucks and tourists on a 30-mile route between Crisfield and Reedville, Va. is due before the end of the year.

"What we're seeing is a shift to a warehouse, distribution center economy," said Daniel S. Kuennen, director of the Rural Development Center at UMES, which provided grant money for the ferry study.

Despite abandoning early proposals for high-speed vessels that also would have served Southern Maryland, supporters think a $35 fare would attract enough customers for slower ferries making three 75-minute passages a day.

"There's no question that the ferry really kicked it all off in Somerset," said C. Frederick Lankford, who runs Lankford-Sysco Food Services, which employs 750 workers at its distribution center near Pocomoke City.

"Right now, we have solid support from our federal representatives in Maryland and Virginia, as well as local support," Lankford said. "What we need is to find the right operator. There might be four or five around the country who can handle it. It's looking real good."

Thompson said better transportation links and Somerset's rural qualities have brightened the county's fortunes.

"Twenty or 30 years ago, a company had to be near its customers, and now it's just the opposite," said Thompson, a native of Crisfield. "Publicity about the ferry might have gotten people's ear, but I think they're coming now because of our quality of life and our pace of life here on the Shore."

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