Somerset Co. seeks help to shore up area's future

State aid seen as precursor to growth

April 15, 2001|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

PRINCESS ANNE - From Tony Bruce's vantage point on the main street in this 268-year-old county seat, the more things change in Somerset County, the more they stay the same.

Bruce, 53, has watched as the 2000 census showed Maryland's southernmost county - and by most measures its poorest - failed to match its 25,923 population of 100 years ago when seafood and agriculture were king.

He's watched as the county's median annual income has slipped to the bottom of state rankings, nearly $1,000 less than that of Baltimore. He's watched a 30-year decline in school enrollment.

Meanwhile, he's seen Salisbury, long the Lower Eastern Shore's commercial hub, become the home for a burgeoning microwave communications industry. He's seen neighboring Worcester grow by more than 30 percent since 1990. He's seen nearby Berlin become a small-town tourist destination and the setting for two major movie productions.

Yet he also sees signs of progress in Somerset. Local legislators left the General Assembly last week with approval to create a tri-county council that will team Somerset with Wicomico and Worcester counties to attract federal funding for economic development projects on the Lower Shore.

Somerset is scheduled to get $2 million from the state's One Maryland program, which funnels loans to the state's six poorest counties and Baltimore. The money will be used to construct a 30,000- to 50,000-square-foot building that county leaders hope will be a magnet for a new business in Princess Anne Industrial Park.

A lawyer in his hometown for 26 years, Bruce has served on the board of the county Economic Development Commission since its inception in 1980 and was its chairman for eight years. He figures he's earned the right to be a little cynical.

Yet, in spite of himself, Bruce said Somerset has room for hope.

"We've had some small successes over the years, but we don't have a major manufacturer or some other big employer we can point to," he said. "Our recent history has been something of a vicious cycle going in the wrong direction. We're going to need to get state help if we're going to reverse that."

Increasing the county's share of tourist dollars is also a high priority for county officials, who are excited that a golf course retirement community is being considered for a site just west of Princess Anne.

"Worcester has Ocean City, Wicomico has Salisbury - now is our time," said a buoyant Joseph A. Mangini Jr., the county's new economic development director. "The future here hinges on increased tourism. But this county has some advantages that are already in place."

First, Mangini and other county leaders said, is a trio of employers that accounts for nearly 3,000 jobs - the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, the Eastern Correctional Institution and home-grown food distribution giant Lankford-SYSCO.

C. Frederick Lankford, who merged the family produce business with Texas-based SYSCO in 1981, employs nearly 1,000 workers at a mammoth complex along U.S. 13 near Pocomoke City. With restaurants, military bases, hotels, hospitals and other institutional customers from New York to South Carolina and overseas, Lankford said the Eastern Shore distribution center increased its business threefold in the past decade.

Despite an unemployment rate that continues to hover around 9 percent in Somerset, Lankford uses recruitment and retention incentives to attract and keep qualified workers. Employees get a $500 bonus if they recommend a friend who is hired.

"I think our outlook is very good in the county right now," Lankford said. "We're looking for slow, controlled growth. We're looking for small companies and some more residential development, and we have great prospects with UMES. The university is really the jewel of the county."

This year's Maryland capital budget includes $27 million for a health sciences building, a project that university President Dolores R. Spikes said is part of an ambitious expansion plan that could double the historically black school's 3,200 enrollment in 10 years.

Much of that growth - new programs in technology, including a master's degree in computer science, a hotel and restaurant management program that will also emphasize tourism, and a student recruitment effort targeting the Eastern Shore - should have direct local benefit. The new dialogue between the community and the university, which lies outside Princess Anne's town limits, follows a history of separation and racial animosity, Spikes said.

"The reason there isn't the solid middle class here that you'd expect to find in most college towns is that UMES was not welcomed," Spikes said. "Now, there is much more forward-thinking leadership in Somerset and the Lower Shore. I think the future holds great promise for a better partnership."

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