WASHINGTON – Dorchester County may not have a big-name department store, but that has not stopped the county from leading the state in the rate of sales growth over the past five years.
The numbers came as a surprise to county officials — one’s response was, “Get out! Really?” But once their initial wave of “wows” waned, they were able to point to an influx of manufacturing and retail jobs as the driving force behind the increase.
“There’s just a lot of activity here,” said Betty Causey, director of the county’s office for economic development.
From 1994 to 1998, she said, the county got three new manufacturing plants, a Kmart, a Wal-Mart, a new car dealership and two new grocery stores.
It was during that same five-year period that Dorchester County sales tax revenues jumped 69 percent per capita, according to a Capital News Service analysis of data from the Maryland Comptroller’s Office.
That was the fastest growth rate in Maryland, more than five times the state average. It came despite a slight drop in the county’s population during that time.
The biggest increase came in sales taxes on general merchandise in the county — including items sold at discount, drug and variety stores — which grew 88 percent. Causey said that retail sales were “pretty much flat” before Kmart and Wal-Mart opened stores along Route 50 in 1994 and 1995, respectively.
The county also got a boost when three companies opened plants there recently — Regina USA in 1995 and Interstate Corrpack and Nabisco in 1996. Regina USA is an Italian company that manufactures elevator and escalator chains. Interstate Corrpack makes corrugated wax boxes for the poultry industry.
Causey said that shipments to and from the new plants tripled railroad traffic in the county, which, in turn, raised sales tax collections on transportation and utilities by 51 percent. It was the second-fastest growing sales tax category for the county.
John Comeau, executive director of the county’s chamber of commerce, said that the new plants also created more blue-collar jobs and brought new, higher- end engineering jobs associated with plant production. Those higher-paying jobs have probably helped boost sales, he reasoned.
Comeau said retail sales have probably also been helped by tourist traffic on Route 50, which winds through the county on the way to Ocean City and other beach resorts.
He said the new manufacturing jobs have accelerated the county’s shift from an agricultural to a manufacturing economy.
But that’s a shift that Causey said the county has been seeing for quite some time. She said that Dorchester already has the highest percentage of manufacturing jobs for its workforce — 38 percent — than any other county in the state.
Automotive sales tax revenue in the county grew 19 percent from 1994 to 1998, while food and beverage sales rose 8 percent.
The good news comes on the heels of an economic lull for the county. And there’s more good news on the way.
Construction starts this summer on a waterfront Hyatt Regency resort, expected to open in 2001. The Cambridge project will also include 400 new homes, projected to cost between $250,000 and $450,000, said Comeau.