There's More Than Meets The Motorist

January 30, 1995|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Eastern Shore Bureau of The Sun

SALISBURY -- Some local folks call it the "chute," and it's all most people not from around here ever see as they stare through their windshields and pray they don't have to slow too long before getting back onto the open road.

This 3-mile stretch of U.S. 50 that slices through Salisbury's midsection exposes to the passing public such dubiously eye-pleasing sights as fast-food outlets, a big building where chickens are processed and a small building where payroll checks are cashed and, on occasion, converted into booze.

The chute is hardly Salisbury's best face.

What the passing motorist cannot see is a small city that has emerged as the undisputed hub of the Eastern Shore's commerce and culture. Or, that in its 263-year history, Salisbury has never had growing pains like it has now.

When Mayor W. Paul Martin, 74, came to Salisbury in his late teens looking for work, folks for miles around here considered the Wicomico County river town to be the "big city." Its population was 13,000 -- more people than in any other Eastern Shore town -- and it bustled with commerce as fruits and vegetables moved through, headed north.

For many households here before 1952, when the first span of the Chesapeake Bay bridges opened to motorists, Salisbury was oriented not toward Baltimore and Washington, but toward Philadelphia, Wilmington, Del., and Norfolk, Va. In what some natives call that "splendid isolation" from the rest of Maryland, Salisbury evolved as the unofficial capital of the Lower Eastern Shore.

Although more than 200,000 people occupy nearby Ocean City on any summer weekend these days, Salisbury remains the Shore's biggest year-round city and has its fastest growing suburban region.

Within the city live nearly 21,000 people -- a 25 percent increase in the past decade -- and roughly another 20,000 live within three miles of the city limits. The county's population of 70,000 is expected to double by the year 2020.

Highway congestion is so common in Salisbury, particularly during summer when beach and local traffic combine, that residents are insisting that another U.S. 50 bypass be built.

Although Salisbury is only Maryland's 11th largest incorporated community, it has the state's second busiest port and airport. A million tons of fuel, aggregate stone and poultry feed are carried by barge up the Wicomico River each year. At the airport last year, 130,000 aircraft takeoffs and landings were recorded.

The town is home to Salisbury State University, which opened as two-year school with fewer than 100 students in 1925 and now has more than 6,000. The once-local hospital has become Peninsula Regional Medical Center. Salisbury has a free zoo with 400 animals. It has a civic center where Bob Dylan performed before 4,000 fans last year. And it has two television stations, a daily newspaper and a symphony.

"We've seen this city become the cultural center, the shopping center and the medical center of this part of the Shore," said Mr. Martin, who has remained a city resident and has been its mayor since 1982.

Historically the commercial crossroads of the Lower Shore's productive farmlands and chicken industry, Salisbury has been attracting manufacturing companies specializing in electronics and telecommunications.

Perdue Farms Inc., with more than 2,000 employees, continues to be the largest employer and the job base for the area's unskilled workers. But four of the last six new manufacturers to come to Salisbury were involved in technology, making high-tech companies the second biggest local employer, with more than 1,100 jobs. By Eastern Shore standards, Salisbury is growing so fast that some people are questioning whether the city is better off for it.

"The growth we've seen in the last 15 years has not made the average Salisburian's life better," said Robin R. Cockey, former City Council president. "Economic growth isn't translating into economic benefits."

Crime is increasing, he said, and police expenses have climbed in the past six years from 21 percent to 33 percent of the city's operating budget, now about $20 million.

When he ran against Mr. Martin in last year's elections, Mr. Cockey reminded voters that 60 percent -- more than desirable, in his opinion -- of the city's housing was in rental units. He said the number of city residents living within the federal government's definition of poverty had reached 17 percent in 1990 -- 2 percent higher than a decade earlier.

But Mr. Cockey lost, in part, he contends, because he questioned the wisdom of the city's traditional laissez-faire attitude toward development and the wishes of business.

"Our political leaders' philosophy was post-war hubris," Mr. Cockey said. "They believed bigger is better and still do."

'Like Ocean City'

Even without Mr. Cockey in office, Salisbury politics have changed.

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