Sleepy Somerset searches for a way to awaken economy

August 04, 1991|By David Conn | David Conn,Sun Staff Correspondent

Crisfield -- A breeze coming off the bay was welcome relief to Gorman Abbott as he served up plate after plate of fried clams to the people who jammed the Somer's Cove Marina last month.

The annual J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clambake, which drew almost 5,000 people, is Somerset County at its crab, clam and oyster, corn, beer and bayside best. But like a beautiful coat worn only once a year, the festival deceives. Its abundant natural beauty notwithstanding, Crisfield sits at the southern end of one Maryland's most economically depressed counties.

Two years ago, when the Mrs. Paul's frozen seafood and vegetables plant here closed, almost 250 people were laid off, but Mr. Abbott was one of the lucky ones. The 21-year employee got a job at the company's Salisbury plant 36 miles away. Even so, the work hasn't been steady. "I've been off all month," the 47-year-old Crisfield native said.

Somerset is still reeling from the Mrs. Paul's closing and from smaller ones before and since. The county's jobless rate -- 9 percent in June -- is consistently among the highest in Maryland.

A combination of state and local initiatives -- including a new multimillion-dollar prison -- has helped a bit. And some officials are optimistic that eventually the area will thrive on the largess of tourists and retirees.

But places such as Somerset, with their remote location, reliance on dwindling natural resources and paucity of industry, pose a challenge for government officials across the country: how to bring a low-tech area into an increasingly high-tech economy. And county residents understand that government programs go only so far -- what they need most right now is employers and jobs.

Robert Custis understands. His job in the state unemployment office in Princess Anne, the county seat, is finding work for veterans. Somerset is a great place to live only if you've settled down, he says.

"Are you tied to this area?" Mr. Custis asks a client on a drizzly Monday morning. The client, a Vietnam veteran, has been looking for work since May, when he returned to Princess Anne from Georgia. "Other than seafood, we really don't have anything in Somerset County. Well, you know that, 'cause you live here," says Mr. Custis, who lives in Nanticoke, in Wicomico County.

Ultimately, Mr. Custis gives the veteran an application for a job atthe Eastern Correctional Institution, a state prison built outside Princess Anne in 1987. The prison supports about 725 relatively high-paying jobs. "The prison really helped us because it is a firm foundation for employment," says Charles Massey, county administrator.

Still, the prison's tremendous water and sewage demands have left diminished capacity for companies and have hurt the county's efforts to market a nearby industrial park. ECI now is building its own sewage and wastewater treatment facilities.

"We were made so many promises when ECI was built," says Bonita N. Porter, who owns the Woodrow Wilson Nelson Realty (( company in Princess Anne. She says the prison hasn't brought the revenues some had predicted. "I think a lot of people thought they would become millionaires overnight, and that hasn't really happened."

Part of the problem, say Ms. Porter and others, is that environmental laws such as the federal non-tidal wetlands regulations handcuff residential and commercial developers. But state officials disagree, arguing that the county is drawing little interest from developers in the first place.

That's not from lack of trying, they add. Marketing representatives from the state Department of Economic and Employment Development touted the Lower Eastern Shore at a recent trade show in New Jersey. The quasi-public Maryland Economic Development Corp. is negotiating to lease a service center to Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Maryland; it would employ about 15 to 20 people initially. And the state found some money to help expand the Somer's Cove Marina in Crisfield and to relocate the visitors' center to a better location in Princess Anne.

tTC The state also helped revive the Carvel Hall cutlery plant in Crisfield. When the plant closed two years ago, just a week after the Mrs. Paul's closing, 68 jobs were lost. The combination was shocking in such a small county -- the loss of 300-plus workers was comparable to Baltimore losing more than 10,000 jobs in one week.

When Carvel Hall closed, the state moved in immediately with employee assistance and retraining programs and a $950,000 grant. And when James A. Hart, the former plant manager, helped find an investor to buy the plant and reopen it last year, two DEED programs came through with crucial financing: $2.375 million in loans and loan guarantees.

"They have been excellent. They have done a super job," says Mr. Hart, now president of the new company, which employs 32 full-time and 13 part-time workers. While he struggles to pull the company through the recession, he plans to use a federal loan of $290,000 for expansion opportunities.

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