Shore Produces An 'Incredible Array'

July 09, 1995|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,Md. Dept. of Employment & Economic DevelopmentEastern Shore Bureau of The Sun

French luggage. Paper recycled for road paving. Plant barrels. Retail display furniture. Microbrewed beer. Those little hand wipes you get on airplanes after the meal. Children's books. Parts for guns. Wiring for F-14 jets.

And oh, yes -- crabs, chicken and corn.

All of the above are produced on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

"It's incredible what's out there . . . there's an incredible array of products produced and distributed from the Shore," said Jim Gatto, associate director of the Community Financing Group, part of the state Department of Employment and Economic Development. "Most people only think of crabs."

Two decades ago, in the words of one state official, "it was all food." Poultry, agriculture and seafood provided almost all the Eastern Shore's jobs.

Not so now, although agriculture remains a substantial economic force on the Shore.

"Thirty percent of the Shore work force is involved in manufacturing," said J. O. K. Walsh, executive director of Chesapeake Country Economic Development Corp., a five-county regional marketing agency. "The state level is only 8 or 9 percent."

Over the past eight years, the Shore has attracted on average one new business every 90 days. The area has become an attractive site particularly for new, small businesses, say state and local officials. Industrial parks, dedicated workers, weather and proximity to the Eastern Seaboard hubs of New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington make the area appealing. Wages are rising, too, state officials say.

"Companies looking at the Shore are not bottom-fishing for wages," Mr. Gatto said. "If they were, they'd be looking at Louisiana or Mexico. Companies looking here are looking for location.

"You've got an economy on the Shore in transition. Things are changing."

That includes agriculture, which employs fewer people now than in recent years -- but on larger farms.

State and local officials say small-business success stories outnumber the high-profile stings, such as Campbell's plan to close its Chestertown plant in the fall, and Chun King's closing in Cambridge last month.

Courting and keeping

From Kent County south to Worcester County, local economic development directors are working with town, county and state officials -- and sometimes overseas representatives, as well -- to court and keep a wide array of businesses.

"We are in the process of trying to broaden and diversify our base over here," Mr. Walsh said. "We have to bring in new industry."

What they want are smaller businesses, not the large companies that dominated Shore industry for so long. Several small companies offer a better buffer against economic ups and downs, particularly the wrenching changes that come when a one-company town loses its company.

"Our philosophy is, if we have a strong industrial base and we have outside dollars coming in, then we'll have a strong economy," said David Ryan, executive director of Salisbury-Wicomico Economic Development Inc.

His county -- practically synonymous, in the minds of many, with chickens -- is one that retains its strong agricultural base.

Food-processing still big

"Generally speaking, the food-processing industry continues to be our largest industry," Mr. Ryan said. "It represents about 30 percent of our manufacturing base, and provides a great amount of spinoffs."

Those spinoffs include grain operations, machine shops, refrigeration services, cleaning services -- "the list goes on and on," he said.

But the second largest, and the fastest growing, segment of Wicomico's economy is electronics -- particularly microwave technology.

"This technology is geared toward the telecommunications industry," he said. "We do a lot of defense work here. About nine companies here are involved in some way, shape or form with electronics."

Salisbury Technologies makes wiring used in F-14s and F-15s, ++ he said. Eaton Corp. makes circuit breakers. Relcomm Technologies makes relay switches.

Catalog-ordering services

For five years, the county also has been home to Callcenter Services Inc., which provides catalog-ordering services for an astonishing array of businesses. Lord & Taylor, Sharper Image, NationsBank, Playboy, the Red Cross, Smith Barney, Time Warner, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, even the New York Daily News -- all use Callcenter to provide customer service, said Reba Fisher, the company's director of human resources.

"We're an inbound telemarketing firm," she explained. "We service 800 numbers for catalogs." The Salisbury company employs 700 people.

Likewise, none of Salisbury's electronics businesses employs more than 1,000. Some employ only nine or 10; others as many as 800. But the typical business being sought by Shore counties will bring jobs for 50 to 300 workers.

These changes are the way to survive, said Mr. Walsh, the regional marketing agency head.

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