Chamber Forecast finds local economy good — for now

On the plus side, Wicomico County is enjoying a low unemployment rate, a consistent workforce number and a healthy increase in home values.

Looking over the economic horizon, however, the improvements seen in the last three years would appear to be flattening out.

“Things are great right now, but I don’t think it’s going to last,” said Dr. Memo Diriker, the local economy guru who heads BEACON at Salisbury University.

The Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce and BEACON hosted the 2020 Southern Delmarva Economic Forecast last Friday at SU. The event drew its usual big crowd of business leaders hoping for an inside look on how business might progress next year.

Dr. Memo Diriker.

In its 32nd year, the event features regional economists, educators and business leaders, who spend most of a day offering an analysis of the current challenges facing the regional, national and global economy.

“Right now, the economy is looking better than in ’19,” said Dave Ryan, Economic Director of Salisbury-Wicomico Economic Development. “The economy is stable, though there is some uncertainty on the horizon.”

Ryan cited flat job growth and retail sales tax revenues as a signal the local economy has plateaued.

For the year-to-date as of November, Wicomico’s retail sales tax revenues are up only 0.03 percent, year-over-year. Property tax revenues, which ultimately the Wicomico County government, are up 1.3 percent year over year, or by roughly $782,000.

Ryan hit on a topic much talked about in local business circles: the Brain Drain. Despite hosting two universities and maintaining a relatively strong public schools system, Salisbury and Wicomico are seen as a community that can’t either attract or hold on to top talent.

“Our brain ‘increase’ is actually growing,” Ryan said. “We have more educated people staying here.” He pointed to U.S. Census projections that the average age of residents in Salisbury is going down and Salisbury now boasts one of the youngest populations in Maryland.

Wor-Wic Community College President Dr. Ray Hoy pointed out that 90 percent of his school’s graduates stay in the community and begin or continue careers.

Education and Health Care were part of a lengthy discussion, and featured Hoy; Dr. Clifford Copperfield, Chesapeake College; Dr. Charles Wight, Salisbury University; Dr. Heidi Anderson, University of Maryland Eastern Shore; Dr. Donna Hanlin, Wicomico County Public Schools; and Dr. Steve Leonard, of Peninsula Regional Medical Center.

Hoy said Wor-Wic is in the process of funding and planning a new Applied Technology Center that will support credit programs in the college’s occupational education division, with an emphasis on applied and emerging technologies such as industrial technology, supply chain management and alternative energy, as well as current and additional continuing education and workforce development courses in the areas of transportation and industrial trades.

Wight reported that SU was stepping up efforts to recruit local students who might remain in the community after graduation. He said about 65 percent of SU’s current student population is comprised of western shore residents.

He said the university provides a $500 million annual economic boost to the community.

Dr. Heidi Anderson of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in Princess Anne announced that her campus would soon receive a new building to house its growing School of Pharmacy. She also said UMES was on its way to regaining accreditation for its once vaunted Physicians Assistants training program, which the university had to abandon two years ago. She said the university was once again permitted to accepting applications for the program — some 500 students have so far applied, she said, for 20 slots.

Hanlin reviewed the progress of her Imagine 2022 strategic plan and touted the need for more and better early-childhood education programs. Hanlin has been battling some high-profile student discipline issues this school year and raised the topic of “social fabric weaknesses that are being felt in the school system.”

“We must have the resources to ensure the most at-risk students are successful,” she said.

Hanlin said Wicomico would work to expand mental health programs and grow its number of school wellness centers.

Leonard, who is among the region’s largest and most-significant employers, said his focus has been on two recently announced mergers that will occur in 2020. The Peninsula Regional Health System will absorb Nanticoke Memorial Hospital and its medical resources effective Jan. 1.

In March, Peninsula Regional will take over McCready Memorial Hospital in Crisfield, and begin planning for a new medical pavilion to serve western Somerset County,

Peninsula Regional also recently took Salisbury’s two prominent cardiac services providers, Delmarva Heart and Delmarva Cardiology.

“I don’t think our growth is done.” Leonard said. 

Salisbury University President Dr. Charles Wight, center, speaks during a panel of local health and education leaders at Friday’s Economic Forecast at the Guerrieri Academic Commons.

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