SALISBURY — The Salisbury City Council began looking for ways to boost the area’s economy this week.
Council members agreed that retaining current business must share priority with attracting new business and discussed ways to utilize publically-owned property, among other strategies.
Dave Ryan, executive director of Salisbury/Wicomico Economic Development, Inc. (SWED), spoke during the council work session about how government and private industry can work to improve the local economy. He didn’t sugarcoat the challenges they would face.
“This is one of the most severe economic downturns we’ve experienced since perhaps the Great Depression,” Ryan told the assembly. “You have consumer confidence at a low … We’ve seen equity decline, and price points decline in the housing market.”
Ryan emphasized that Salisbury isn’t alone in dealing with a lethargic economy. The same issues felt locally reverberate throughout the country. On the other hand, Salisbury has some unique advantages that, if used well, could help speed up the recovery process, according to Ryan.
“We are a regional hub,” he explained.
Salisbury serves as an access point for most of Wicomico County, according to Ryan. It contains a port, airport and public transportation. Additionally, the city serves as the county’s seat of government.
Ryan also spoke of Salisbury’s “diverse economic base,” noting that there is a wide range of consumers and producers in the city. One of the major questions presented by the council to Ryan was what strategies SWED believes should be used to attract new business owners and therefore jobs to the community.
“Why would I want to come to this community?” asked Councilwoman Shanie Shields from the hypothetical perspective of a business owner.
Conversely, Shields also wondered what “turns business away” from the Salisbury area. Ryan explained that there were a lot of factors involved when appealing to new business.
“We have a viable labor market,” he noted as one Salisbury’s positives.
In a case of making new friends while keeping the old, however, Ryan stressed that Salisbury needs to make an equal commitment to retaining and helping current businesses located within the city.
“It’s a soft market out there right now,” he said, warning the council that the majority of revenue and jobs every year come from already established businesses.
Councilwoman Laura Mitchell agreed and pointed to the recent announcement by Perdue AgriBusiness to relocate its office from Salisbury to Seaford by 2012. While Perdue will keep its main corporate headquarters in Salisbury, and company officials don’t attribute the move to problems with Salisbury but instead increased opportunity with Seaford, the relocation will still mean about 100 jobs crossing the state line.
Besides the need to balance business attraction with retention, Ryan was also quizzed by the council on what uses could be found for publically-owned property like Firehouse 16 and the former Linens of the Week building.
“We lost jobs in that neighborhood when we lost that facility,” said Councilwoman Deborah Campbell in reference to the Linens property.
“It’s an admirable goal to want to replace those jobs,” replied Ryan.
Campbell asked Ryan what would be needed to make “the parcel attractive” to a potential new business. The first step, said Ryan, is to clean up the site.
Salisbury is currently working with the Maryland Department of Environment (MDE) to demolish and decontaminate portions of the location that became contaminated by leaking fuel tanks. Once it’s in better shape, Ryan explained that a new business, especially an industrial one, might find it more appealing. However, due to the specifics of the property, he admitted that it’s something of a hard sale.
“It would be a niche user,” Ryan said of someone looking to purchase the site.
Even then, he added, it would be tricky to find the right business at the right moment.
“Timing does come into play,” said Ryan.
Though he predicted difficulty finding placement for the Linens buildings, overall Ryan was optimistic about the steps the city has taken and plans to take to bolster the local economy.
“We’re not boarded up,” he said “Downtown is not boarded up … I suspect better days are yet to come.”
The final assessment delivered to the council was that people are finding jobs, but slowly. Ryan explained that everything is very closely linked, and that “as the labor market ticks up so does the labor force rate.”
“I think we’ll muddle through these recessionary times together,” he said.
Ryan underscored the partnership between the city, county, and agencies like his as being the driving force for getting Salisbury back on track economically.
“We’re trying,” he stated. “We appreciate the partnership.”