"Streets and stores have become more and more crowded during Depression times," the Maryland Writers' Project guidebook said in 1940 about this city on the Eastern Shore. "From year to year, even month to month, new private and public construction has continued to change the aspect of the place. The air is charged with business deals and real estate promotion . . . "
Once again, in the deep economic recession of the 1980s, this commercial, transportation and training center has flourished in the midst of hard times. Business leaders and elected officials say diversity and low wages have been the area's salvation.
"This is small-business heaven down here," says John R. Wennersten, a college teacher and student of the Eastern Shore who lives near Salisbury State. "Salisbury is a largely low- or minimum-wage town. When things are good, things aren't that good. When things are bad, they aren't that bad."
Indeed, retail sales here jumped 12.7 percent last year. The shopping centers outside town are, for the most part, holding their own. At the same time, the old shopping district, almost written off as a ghost town of empty storefronts a few years back, is fashionable and full of shops again.
Traffic is up, too, at Salisbury's airport, the state's second largest, as it has been for seven straight years. Last year, 90 new employes were added by the Salisbury-based Henson Airlines, which runs commuter flights to Washington and Baltimore.
Promising additional jobs, a new state office building is also in the works for Salisbury. There are more ambitious plans, still in the embryonic stages, to revitalize the Wicomico River waterfront and the town's predominantly black West Side. Officials hope to lure cruise ships 35 miles up river from Chesapeake Bay to dock here in the state's second largest port.
The self-styled "Crossroads of Chesapeake Country" sits at the intersection of U.S. routes 13 and 50. For many metropolitan travelers, it is mostly a place to pass through on the way to Ocean City. For many lower-shore residents, however, it is the place to shop or to work, to attend college or to get the best medical care at the new $26 million hospital perched on a bluff overlooking the downtown.
"Historically, this community was a market center and it still is," said Robert W. Cook, director of the blue-ribbon Greater Salisbury Committee. "Retailers here attract buyers from as far away as Cape Charles, Va.," a 120-mile roundtrip that seems less of a burden to some than the $19 Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel toll to and from the Norfolk area.
"I know people who live here and commute to jobs in New York and St. Louis. They're reluctant to leave," said Cook, as he showed a reporter some of the town's attractions, including a city park and zoo, and riverside homes and neighborhoods such as affluent Tony Tank, and Newtown, an area of restored Victorian houses increasingly inhabited by young professionals.
The city of 16,000 is at the core of a metropolitan area of 50,000 serving a market that extends from nearby Sussex County, Del., down the spine of the Delmarva peninsula. Enough is happening here to sustain 134 doctors, 39 dentists, 44 accountants and 86 lawyers.
There have been setbacks, to be sure. Four years ago, the Green Giant plant shut down, and the Salisbury branch of the Woolco discount store chain has closed its doors. But Salisbury Steel is holding its own; Campbell Soup remains a major employer, and the employes' parking lot at Dresser Industries, which produces service station pumps, is full.
Unlike Cambridge, for many years a one-industry town in Dorchester County, or Easton, the tony seat of affluent Talbot County, Salisbury has always promoted economic diversity. In recent times, new industrial plants have sprouted on its fringes to accommodate the entrepreneurial spirit. The town has also helped a company that builds and repairs cruise ships to obtain a $487,000 federal grant for bulkheading improvements.
In all these efforts, officials see more jobs as the bottom line: last year, as many as 1,000 new jobs came to Salisbury.
Salisbury, moreover, is a center of the peninsula's poultry industry, producing the food to which Americans turn to stretch their budgets in tough economic times. Perdue Farms, whose processing plant sits at river's edge, is expanding with city- and county-backed industrial revenue bonds.
It is a mostly non-union town, "and I think the business community would like to keep it that way," said Cook, of the Greater Salisbury Committee. The 1980 census data reflect one of the consequences: Wicomico County had nearly twice as many residents in the lowest category of "disposable personal income" as the state in general and less than half the number at the highest level.
Unemployment in this still largely agricultural area is a seasonal phenomenon, with winter the worst time of the year. But the 12 percent recorded in February was 2.2 percent less than a year before and, according to John Matthews, state employment office manager, high peak unemployment is "not uncommon" in normal times. The relatively mild winter has helped, he said, along with Perdue's addition of 200 jobs.
When the 75-store mall first opened for business in 1968, it seemed to signal the demise of downtown, as similar malls did in cities across America. To counter the trend, Salisbury's leaders closed Main Street to traffic and turned the downtown district into a "Plaza" walkway.
The plan didn't work. By 1980, before the onset of the national recession, half the downtown stores were empty and its major department store had burned down.
Movers and shakers brought in a major shopping center developer who recommended large-scale demolition and redevelopment. In its place, the developer proposed a brand new covered mall. The town didn't buy it. Although the downtown wasn't that old--its structures had been ravaged by fire in 1886--Salisbury citizens discovered they liked what was left. Preservation and restoration became the new order of the day.
"I think Salisbury had to try to find itself," says Philip (Pete) Cooper, the downtown revitalization manager who had been the city's director of public works. "I think it felt it couldn't operate without strong anchors."
A team of architects from around the country went to work on a plan to revive the downtown. Matching public and private funds paid for exterior facade facelifting of the old stores. An old hardware store has been converted to a six-shop "Galleria." Benjamin's, the department store that burned, also is slated to undergo a conversion, and 14 tenants are lined up.
While changes have won wide approval, some citizens still say the downtown suffers in comparison with the Salisbury Mall. They gripe especially about parking, which is free at the Mall. Downtown shoppers pay for parking, on the street, or in a city-owned lot or garage. The recent increase in parking fines, from $1 to $2.50 per offense, outrages some of the customers at Johnny and Sammy's, a bustling 1950-vintage restaurant on U.S. 13 where the towns's senior "fathers" spend their mornings in semi-retirement.
"I'd like to see 'em abolish all parking meters and have free two-hour parking," said Bill Ahtes, a downtown real estate owner, promoter and entrepreneur."People hate these goddamn parking meters in the street."
Ahtes, whose family ran a restaurant on Rte. 50 for years, embodies the new Salisbury spirit of progressive enterprise based on a close association between business and government.
In fact, hard times could bolster the old business district, suggested Ahtes, who has leased one of his older downtown properties to a discount factory outlet. "They're getting out of the malls," he said of some merchants. "These malls are so damned expensive, people can't afford the rents." Old buildings, even renovated, can rent for less, he noted. "That's what's gonna bring the merchants back from the mall."