Rural Economies: The Once and Future King in Calvert?

With good soils, temperate climate, 40 inches of rain annually, and a peninsula located on the most prolific estuary in the nation, Calvert County was naturally one of the first places colonized in the 1600s. Until the middle of the 20th Century, rural economies were “King” for three reasons: seafood was abundant, agriculture was viable (particularly in the rich delta soils along the river side) and the county was geographically isolated. The population remained small, around 12,000 to 15,000, for centuries. Quaint little towns were located to serve agriculture and seafood, occasionally destroyed by fire or under attack by pirates or the British.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Calvert’s population began to grow, not because of economic opportunity, but because of Calvert’s quality of life. Workers in the Washington DC region began moving away from crime, high taxes, and poor schools. Calvert had a low crime rate, low taxes, decent schools, and rural character.

Suburban sprawl began to carve up farms and forests in Calvert just as agriculture, forestry, and seafood industries began to die. Farms became less diversified and failed as huge farms in the Midwest and West began to out-compete local farmers in production of pigs and cattle, and other local farm commodities. Tobacco, Calvert’s money crop, was phased out. Water pollution and overharvesting decimated the oyster and rockfish populations.

In every decade for the last 40+ years, there has been an effort to change the economy in Calvert by promoting light industry and office parks. But most efforts have failed because of a basic rule of real estate and economics: “location, location, location”. Calvert does not have access to rail, a major airport, or a major arterial road. Even industrial parks that got off the ground have struggled, and now recreation and retail uses, which do not fit the model for industrial parks, have become more prevalent there.

With a few exceptions, the industries that have thrived in Calvert have been those that are based on the County’s natural assets: access to the Patuxent River, the Chesapeake Bay and Calvert’s rural landscapes. Those industries are agriculture, forestry, seafood, commercial fishing, sport fishing, recreational boating, tourism, and energy companies reliant on the County’s deep water access to the Chesapeake Bay. Residential development and support services for residential development (retail, restaurants, etc.) round out the economy.

The good news is that basic rural economies are returning in the 21st century. Oyster aquaculture has helped that industry. Improved water quality and harvest management is maintaining healthier seafood harvests. The local food movement is helping beginning farmers return to farms. Agri-tourism, heritage tourism, and eco-tourism continue to build out tourism industries.

The Sage Policy Group hired by the County to prepare the new Economic Development Strategic Plan Update 2017-2022, identified a number of key issues for the county to focus upon going forward. Among them are: Preserving Calvert County’s Rural Characteristics;
 Bringing Growth and Vibrancy to the Town Centers; and Maintaining Calvert County’s Way of Life. The new Strategic Plan supports the further development of farm-to-table agriculture and ag related tourism. We support the Plan’s overall strategy provided town centers are vibrant and attractive and come with adequate facilities, including good roads.

Rural economies used to be the king in Calvert. Aside from energy companies, these are the industries that have a history of succeeding. Let’s do all we can to help them thrive while maintaining good infrastructure (roads, water, sewer, public buildings and parks) and protecting our quality of life. It only makes economic sense.

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