PRINCESS ANNE -- Folks around here aren't too sure about the politics of Wal-Mart up in Annapolis, but there is one thing that pretty much everybody in this Eastern Shore county seat can agree on: 800 jobs at a mammoth retail distribution warehouse would be a boon.
And another thing: $12 an hour is not chump change in Somerset County, Maryland's poorest jurisdiction, which for decades has seen a steady decline in the traditional stalwarts of the local economy, farming and seafood.
Now, a week after the Maryland General Assembly overrode Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s veto of a bill requiring Wal-Mart to spend more on employee health care, residents are waiting for the other shoe to drop - wondering whether the controversy might push the world's largest retailer to put its big distribution center someplace else.
"We have a labor force who work with their hands, and there is absolutely no question that Somerset County needs the jobs," says Sharon Harris, who with her husband, Bill, runs a hardware store here and another in nearby Pocomoke City.
Wal-Mart officials have been talking for more than a year about building a 470,000-square-foot distribution center outside Princess Anne. But last spring, after the General Assembly passed the health care bill, the company said it might wait an additional two or three years before buying a 170-acre property a couple of miles south of town. The company has remained tight-lipped since Democrats overturned Ehrlich's veto last week.
"Right now, we are weighing our options," Wal-Mart spokesman Nate Hurst said after the vote. "This bill certainly sent a message to the business community, and companies like ours are taking a step back and wondering how business-friendly Maryland is." Hurst would not say when the company would decide whether to go ahead with plans for the warehouse.
The governor's office has invited economic development officials from Somerset and the other Lower Shore counties to a meeting in Annapolis today to talk about job-growth prospects in the wake of the override. Ehrlich administration officials say they have not learned anything about the company's plans since the vote.
Daniel K. Thompson, Somerset County's economic development chief, worked with state officials for two years to lure Wal-Mart. He says that losing the distribution center - which would be located next to one of the county's largest employers, the Eastern Correctional Institution - would be a blow to the region, including Virginia's Eastern Shore.
"I'm just hoping the state and Wal-Mart can work something out," Thompson said. "This is the Eastern Shore, and it is different. These would be meaningful jobs. People on the Western Shore need to realize that."
Thompson is quick to point out that with an unemployment rate of nearly 6 percent and a median household income of $27,848 in Somerset, attitudes might be different from those in more affluent parts of the state.
The bill, crafted by Democrats, requires companies with 10,000 or more employees in Maryland to spend 8 percent of their payroll on health benefits, a mark met by the state's other large employers. Ehrlich, Maryland's first Republican governor in more than 30 years, came to Princess Anne last spring to veto the bill.
Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat who fought for the legislation, said Wal-Mart chose the Somerset County site for the distribution center because it is a desirable location. He said he hopes the company won't reverse its plans.
"I think people on the Eastern Shore deserve a decent wage and health care," Pinsky said. "We do not think that anybody in the state should have to give in to corporate blackmail."
Some longtime residents say they have seen improvement in Somerset's economy in recent years as Princess Anne becomes something of a bedroom community for Salisbury, the Shore's largest city, and waterfront condominiums seem to sprout overnight in Crisfield.
"It is a little better now with more construction jobs," says Oliver Wigfall, who has worked as an electrician for 10 years at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore - Somerset's largest employer, with 950 jobs. "But if we're ever going to get more stores, more restaurants, all the things you have in other places, we have to have more jobs."
Twenty-year-old Ashley Frakes, a clerk at Harris' hardware store here, will be going to UMES on a full scholarship to study marine biology. But she says a lot of her friends who graduated from Washington High School haven't been fortunate enough to get that kind of financial help.
"Wal-Mart would mean a lot to kids around here," Frakes says. "Twelve an hour would help."
At the Main Street Cafe, owner Robin Travis thinks Wal-Mart would make a dent in local unemployment.
"With them here, there just wouldn't be any excuse for not working," Travis says. "You come in a county this size with 700 or 800 jobs and it really has an impact. I just hope Wal-Mart doesn't get pissed off and go someplace else."
Harris says she doesn't "buy the whole Chamber of Commerce spin" about Wal-Mart and marvels that she can pay a share of the medical insurance costs for her 10 workers at the hardware stores if the world's largest retailer balks.
Still, she hopes the company decides to come.
"It's pretty simple in this area - $12 an hour to start looks really good to a lot of people," Harris says.
Sun reporters Andrew A. Green and Jamie Smith Hopkins contributed to this article.