Expanding on a point he made when he spoke at our Lincoln Day Dinner, U.S. Senate hopeful Richard Douglas bemoaned the loss of 1,400 manufacturing jobs when heavy equipment maker Caterpillar decided to build a factory in Athens, Georgia.
The media approach was two-pronged, with the Senate candidate penning an op-ed on Baltimore’s Citybizlist website as well as a video:
Key among Douglas’s arguments is this, from the Citybizlist piece:
Public statements from company officials show Caterpilllar’s reasons for choosing Athens, Georgia: a deep pool of skilled workers, the nearness of Atlantic seaports for exports, and Georgia’s friendly business climate. Maryland has a tradition of heavy industry and a skilled labor pool. The world-class Port of Baltimore goes round-for-round with the ports of Charleston and Savannah. So why wasn’t Maryland even considered?
Where the comparison between Georgia and Maryland fails, of course, is the business climate. Maryland’s business climate is legendary for its hostility to private enterprise. Our state bleeds jobs, and as far as CEOs and corporate site selection consultants are concerend, Maryland is fly-over country.
Douglas goes on to explain that Athens is over 200 miles from the Savannah and Charleston seaports while the city of Baltimore has its own “world-class” port. And Douglas is right in citing Maryland’s poor business climate, although he fails to mention that Georgia is a right-to-work state. We’ve talked about that for years, but it’s apparent that Maryland won’t change its spots until the current Democratic regime is ousted from Annapolis at all levels. Having a Republican governor staring at a Democrat-controlled General Assembly is no solution, even in a state where the executive has as much power as Maryland’s does.
But there are two other things I believe Douglas missed that he (or anyone else elected to the Senate seat) would have some control over once attaining office.
First of all, it’s not apparent to the average person but Salisbury is the second-largest seaport in Maryland. While I’m no nautical expert, I would presume that the Wicomico River has enough depth to allow the barges I’ve seen transporting gravel and other commodities up and down the river but not enough to allow for seagoing ships like those traversing Chesapeake Bay. And that’s fine, since we’re several miles inland.
But wouldn’t it be possible to do a limited amount of container shipping through the Wicomico River, say, enough to support a manufacturer who creates something larger than a chicken? I don’t know the answer to that question.
The other thing which surprises me about Caterpillar’s choice is that there’s no direct highway connection from Athens to either of the seaports Douglas mentions. While Salisbury probably can’t become a major port, there are opportunities to connect to larger seaports and markets in the Northeast if we have some leadership in developing the infrastructure to take advantage of it. I’ve said for several years that having an interstate-grade highway connection from Salisbury (similar to the U.S. 13/50 bypass) northward through Delaware to I-95 would open up the area to development and further tourism. With more industry, we could also see the existing rail line through Salisbury double-tracked northward as well. (Obviously that’s more efficient as it allows freight travel simultaneously in both directions.)
If an area doesn’t grow, it shrivels and dies. Just take a drive like I do weekly through Virginia’s Eastern Shore, where both counties lost population in the last 10 years, and you’ll see what I mean. The young people aren’t staying, and part of the problem is a lack of suitable infrastructure for job growth.
Remember, while we may not have gotten the Caterpillar plant and its projected 1,400 jobs, we would be just as happy to get 14 job-creators who hire 100 workers apiece. And while they don’t necessarily have to be manufacturing jobs, it seems to me that America needs to begin making things again and if the conditions are changed to be more favorable to commerce we can create the workforce to do so.