My wife Judy and I moved to a beautiful Eastern Shore county from Washington, D.C. almost 25 years ago after she ran over a dead body (drugs) behind our parking pad. For much of the first 15 years I continued working in war zones either leading an economic development team in the field or serving as a development advisor to the host government. Part of my work was to analyze the economies where I was assigned and recommend possible options to improve the usually severely damaged local conditions. I returned home full time from Afghanistan about 5 years ago.
Because of my background, it was inevitable I would eventually take a look at the economic and financial shape of our home county. I suspect some of the other 8 Shore counties may reflect similar characteristics and perhaps even face a few of the same challenges. First, let me describe our county.
My County –
Geography and Demographics:
- 413 square miles, 277 is land, 136 is water and the county has 209 miles of shoreline
- Eastern border is the Mason-Dixon Line.
- 19, 270 (2020): a 10-11% decline since 2000.
- Median age 48 (2020), 25% higher than Maryland’s or America’s
- Over 65 – 27.1% (MD. 15.09%)
Economy – People –
- Employment rate – 56.4 (MD. 63.5%)
- Unemployment rate – 4.9% (MD.4.6%)
- Median income – $60,208 (MD. $87,481)
- Poverty rate – 12.0% (MD. 9%)
Major Employers –
- College – 550 Employees
- Hospital – 429
- Public school System – 370
- Local government – 413
- Manufacturer – 366
- Construction Company – 224
- Retirement Community – 200
- Chemical Company – 182
County Revenues –
2021 – $50, 177,497,
2014 – $54, 162, 640
County Revenue Sources –
Property Taxes: (61% of total county revenue)
Residential – 78%
Commercial – 14%
Agricultural – 13% (primarily structures)
Income Taxes: 28%
Fees, etc. – 11%
The prognosis for the future viability of Kent County or any other similarly situated community, absent concerted, targeted intervention, is not good. Neither the demographics nor the economics is encouraging and both interact with each other..
It’s very important that younger families with children are attracted to take up permanent residence in Kent. There are two reasons: one is obvious, we need them to serve as the social basis for the decades to come and second is the public school system needs them to enlarge the student population. Its size determines how much state support the County receives for its schools and it has been shrinking for a number of years.
This issue is becoming even more critically important. Recent Kirwan Commission related state legislation has increased the amount the counties must commit to their public school systems over the next 10 years. Kent’s allocation is $10-11 million
Young families considering relocation look at the availability of jobs, affordable housing, daycare, adequate healthcare and good public and perhaps private schools. Improving, as necessary, the quality of these factors needs to translate into important goals for the County’s longer term planning.
The Pandemic has added another dimension to reducing the current median age. Many young professionals decided they liked working from home and have begun looking for places, other than large urban areas, where they would prefer living. Many are singles or couples without children. They offer another source of new Kent residents.
And finally, one option being discussed is to sponsor young, Ukrainian refugee families to resettle in Kent.
There is a fundamental fact probably present in other Eastern Shore counties that affects future growth. 91% of Kent’s land is zoned agricultural (reducing property tax revenue). And a growing percentage is being placed in the land conservancy program. Thus, only about 9% of the land is available for economic development.
The data provided earlier also makes it clear that the declining population relates directly to the declining County revenues. Moreover, Chestertown, the county seat, has lost 17 businesses, 5 most recently to fire. None have been replaced. There are doubtless other business losses elsewhere in the County.
One of the people I interviewed for this article said that the two futures Kent County faces without the attention described above, is to become America’s largest Leisure World or a national park. He wasn’t serious, but it was amusing. I’m confident the people lucky enough to live in Kent and their public and private sector leaders, will make the right decisions to ensure its vibrant, prosperous future.
Tom Timberman is an Army vet, lawyer, former senior Foreign Service officer, adjunct professor at GWU, and economic development team leader or foreign government advisor in war zones. He is the author of four books, lectures locally and at US and European universities. He and his wife are 24 year residents of Kent County.
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