In his commentary this week, Al Sikes seems to suggest that Talbot County faces a choice between “pastoral aspirations” and “the siren song of growth.” And that in picking among candidates for County Council in just a few weeks, Talbot’s voters “will influence, if not determine, which path we choose.”
Here I disagree with my friend Al. Talbot can and should have both economic growth and its unique and long cherished identity. Citizens have said their primary goal is to retain “a high quality of life and rural character” (from the Comprehensive Plan vision statement), yet we all of course want our families, and our neighbors’ families, to enjoy the blessings that come with economic growth. Some candidates, in their own interest, want to frame the election in these terms: either growth, meaning new development in the County wherever possible, or adherence to the County’s plan. There is a better way.
The “growth” we need is not measured by number or size of physical buildings constructed, which seems to be the idea of some. Rather, it is economic prosperity, and on per capita terms at that. Our yardstick should be the financial wellbeing of local families, the 38,000 citizens who live here right now. Some—for instance in the building trades, do earn money out of construction itself, whether in towns or in the County. The livelihood of others—say nurses, or computer technicians we’d like to see here—do not depend at all on such projects. In other words, economic prosperity does not require material physical expansion onto the rural landscape beyond what is already provided for in the County’s Plan.
Lest there be any doubt, population growth, while not unwelcome, is not an end in itself. An extreme example: In 1990, Middletown, DE was a charming small rural town with a population of 3,754. And it grew. No doubt many landowners were made rich, building contractors made money, big developers made money (but being out-of-area, took it elsewhere). Projects succeeded and others went bust and sat ugly and empty in foreclosure. The land — some of the richest farmland in the region — became unrecognizable. Politicians, long in office, made things happen, and quickly! By the end of 2016, Middletown’s population was 20,876, and it is no doubt even more crowded today. Seventeen thousand more people, 556%. A growth success story if ever there was one! But what about those 3.754 citizens of 1990? Is this the Middletown they really wanted? Were they really the beneficiaries?
Middletown’s path starts with things like a bright, shiny new gas-and-convenience store right on the edge of town, and goes from there. How about a Taco Bell?
In Talbot County we have two economic drivers. The first is agriculture, and under our Comprehensive Plan its preservation is central to both the local economy and land use. The second is, and should always be, the business activity in the incorporated towns of Easton and St. Michaels. It’s been that way for from the beginning, is now, and should be for a long time to come.
And what about the building trades? On top of the kind of work going on now (try to get a contractor on short notice), those craftsmen should be on infill and adaptive reuse projects, tear-downs and remodeling for businesses, and on resultant housing (including affordable housing) in the towns. This can happen—but it’ll take a marketing effort that, in my opinion, incumbent Council members cannot envision, one focused on the combined assets of Easton and the uniqueness of our County.
The overlooked political position in Talbot County with the greatest untapped potential for vigorous leadership generating real economic growth and prosperity is Mayor of Easton. At present, Chestertown, Salisbury (under a dynamic young mayor) and even Cambridge are cleaning our clocks.
While Easton and the other towns are part of the County, they each have an independent government. So County Council members only control the lands outside the towns—not the towns that are the wellsprings of the County’s economy. It is no wonder that misplaced efforts to spur “growth in the County” have for four years triggered conflict, especially over long-term threats regarding sewer, re-zoning and land use issues.
If we recognize that the towns are where the economic juice must flow, Talbot’s citizens (voters) need not have to pick between “growth”—meaning new projects in the rural landscape—and abandoning the bedrock reason most of us live here: our quality of life and Talbot’s rural character.
Dan Watson writes from his own perspective, but is Chair of the Bipartisan Coalition For New County Leadership, a new local political organization