CAMBRIDGE – It markets itself as the “first true premier Mid-Atlantic resort,” a palace that rises in the east for motorists crossing the Choptank River Bridge on their summertime treks to the beach.
But with seven floors that light up the river’s edge at dusk, the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay has become more than a corporate retreat destination. It’s a beacon of hope for Dorchester County.
After years of a declining job market with an unemployment rate near 10 percent, officials hail the Hyatt as the needed jumpstart to a stagnant regional economy, and an answer to a problem that underlies U.S. Census data released this spring.
Early indications say that it will be that catalyst.
“Restaurants have seen their business increase anywhere from 12 to 22 percent. I’ve seen the flower shops busy, and the airport has increased flights,” said Betty Causey, head of the county’s economic development office.
According to the Census Bureau, fewer Dorchester residents hold jobs today than they did in 1990. It’s the only Eastern Shore county where the number of residents who work declined, and of those who do, an increasing number now commute elsewhere.
Sprawl can be blamed for a small part of the trend, with a handful of newcomers keeping their jobs in Talbot County or points north, like Washington and Baltimore.
But local officials, not to mention Dorchester residents, believe people are driving farther because outside jobs are more abundant, better paying and cater more to the college-educated than points south of the Choptank, which divides Talbot and Dorchester.
“There are not a lot of opportunities here for someone without a college education,” said Marty Jester, who works for Mid-Shore Electronics, a Cambridge- based marine electronics business. “And unskilled labor doesn’t pay a lot. That’s what the labor force here is.”
Over the past decade, the number of Dorchester commuters has jumped from 3,316 to 4,593. Although other counties have more workers commuting, or have a higher percentage of commuters in their work force, in relation to Dorchester’s total workforce, the county’s commuter growth rate far outstrips any other on the Eastern Shore.
And Dorchester’s unemployment will spike again this summer when Easton- based Black & Decker moves to Mexico, leaving up to 1,300 people out of work. The plant, a few miles north of the county line, employs more than 300 locals.
As the summer closing approaches, most everyone agrees the county must rethink its long-term economic plan, one that shifts focus away from industry and more toward service, retail — and ultimately, tourism.
“One of the assets the county will need to capitalize on, and think about carefully, is its waterfront,” said Anirban Basu, CEO of Optimal Solutions Group, an economic consulting firm in Baltimore. “The Hyatt is a major coup, a potentially big winner in terms of tourism.”
The Hyatt hired 300 full- and part-time workers when it opened Aug. 29 and plans to add more. Resort officials say 80 percent come from Dorchester and surrounding communities, including southern Talbot County.
Since last summer, more than 90,000 people have visited the resort.
“It’s mind-boggling how many people are coming here,” said Thomas Flowers, a county commissioner. “Every one of them is looking for an experience, and Dorchester County is in the position to give them that experience.”
But it isn’t just yet, mostly because no one imagined a county without manufacturing. During the 1950s, Dorchester was a one-industry region, with the Phillips food-packing company employing upward of 10,000 people.
The company imported low-income, low-educated labor from surrounding areas. When the plant closed in the 1960s, employees stayed put, creating a large pool of jobless workers.
Manufacturing never fully recovered. Businesses like Bumble Bee tuna and Nabisco, once prominent Dorchester employers, likewise moved elsewhere.
While many smaller plants have taken their place, most recently a mushroom canning company and a business that manufactures equipment for fire trucks, the county is moving from an industry to a service-based economy.
Dorchester officials already boast about attractions like the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and Cambridge’s historic downtown areas.
That’s where the Hyatt plays a pivotal role. By keeping people in the area as a destination itself, the county needs businesses that will cater to tourist demands.
“People are going back to the hotel and saying, `Boy, I was looking for more shops,'” said Gage Thomas, president of the Association for the Revitalization of Cambridge. “It’s a signal of the things we need.”
Restaurants, boutiques and coffee shops would not only serve Hyatt guests — by Thomas’s logic, they’d serve the entire region. New businesses require new workers, and Dorchester has plenty.
The problem, however, isn’t a shortage of workers. Locals say it’s the relatively low education levels. Only 12 percent of county residents hold a bachelor’s degree, far less than the 31 percent of all Marylanders.
“There’re no high-paying jobs,” said Bryan Davis, a sophomore at Cambridge-South Dorchester High School who plans to study psychology in college. “You won’t thrive or move on to higher things if you stay here. If I go to a city or something, I don’t have any limits.”
Demographic movements may eventually change that. Dorchester’s population remained fairly even during the 1990s, growing by less than 300 people and with a current headcount of 30,451.
Housing construction, however, is slowly taking off. Real estate is much cheaper than in Talbot County, which itself has seen significant population growth since 1990.
Memo Diriker, a Salisbury University professor who studies development on the Eastern Shore, has tracked the development growth from Kent Island in Queen Anne’s County, to Talbot and now to Dorchester.
“People are going to cash in on their home values and move to the shore to get bigger and cheaper houses and live on the difference,” he said. “Dorchester is going to change its profile to meet the needs of newcomers.”
One local restaurateur is already capitalizing on that need. John Moody, a Cambridge native who owns the Breaktime restaurant and bar in Salisbury, opened his second establishment — Great Slates — last month in Cambridge Plaza.
Business has been nothing short of spectacular.
“I always wanted to do something in Cambridge because I lived here, but the Hyatt didn’t hurt my timing,” said Moody, who employs more than 50 locals. “People were dying for something like this to happen.”
For Basu, the Hyatt is the first step toward recovery. Marketing the county will attract younger residents, who in turn build a labor force, and that labor pool will bring better-paying jobs.
“Dorchester County is sort of in a transitional phase,” he said. “Increasingly it’s becoming a post-industrial society and needs to replace that industrial base with a comparable commercial base. And that takes time.”