For the time being, it looks like the Princess will not be awakened by a kiss from Wal-Mart. The small community of Princess Anne, in Somerset County, has been wooed by Wal-Mart for four year as the site of a potential distribution center. But so far, the project has been nothing but a frog. This warehouse became one of the most politicized Wal-Mart projects in the nation. In May of 2005, when Maryland Governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced he would veto a bill that would have required companies like Wal-Mart to pay more for its employees’ health care, he traveled to Princess Anne in Somerset County to sign the veto. This symbolic trip by the Governor to Somerset was meant to highlight “the county expected to suffer most largely from the passage of the bill,” according to a news release sent out by the Governor’s office. State officials were confident that Wal-Mart would not drop its distribution center in Somerset County – even if the legislature overrode the veto – because of the incentives Maryland had provided to make the project happen. “I think we’re too good a market to pass up,” said the Governor’s head of business and economic development. “I think they’ll keep negotiating with us and we’ll keep negotiating with them and we’ll come to some middle ground.” The law would have required all companies in Maryland with more than 10,000 employees to spend at least 8% of their payroll on workers’ health care or pay a tax to make up the difference. Wal-Mart was reportedly the only company in Maryland that would be affected. In 2005, state officials said Wal-Mart was moving much slower on the project than it did initially and had stopped discussions altogether on a Western Maryland distribution center that had been in the works. During the debate on the health care bill, a Wal-Mart spokesman told the Baltimore Sun, “We are still working through the plans (for the distribution center), but you certainly have to take a step back and take a look at the business climate in a state like Maryland where such bad anti-business legislation passed, unfairly targeting individual companies like this bill does. That’s a very bad precedent.” State Senator Lowell Stoltzfus, the minority leader who represents the Somerset area, said three years ago that he hoped Wal-Mart would not back out of the project. “Somerset County is the most economically depressed county in the state. You put 1,000 new $12-an-hour jobs in this county, it would be the largest employer. It would just be an incredible impact.” Somerset County officials also have been doing whatever they can to cooperate with Wal-Mart — but according to the Daily Times newspaper this week, the county can’t produce enough water to feed the giant facility. Somerset County, whose motto is “Semper Eadem” (always the same) has had more of the same since 2004, when Wal-Mart first evinced an interest in this Maryland community near the shore of Tangier Sound and the Chesapeake Bay. Wal-Mart has not backed out of the deal formally, but they also have not produced a clear timetable for construction and opening of the warehouse. “We remain interested in the Somerset community and hope to be able to bring the community the services, goods and strong jobs,” Wal-Mart’s “regional senior manager for state and local government relations” told the Daily Times. The frog has grown over the years — offering 450 jobs in 2004, now up to 750 jobs today. The site for the distribution center is a 152 acre parcel located next to a jail. The Eastern Correctional Institution will be Wal-Mart’s nearest neighbor, and any objections from the inmates there are not likely to be voiced. Somerset County’s Administrator believes that a water shortage is the only issue keeping Wal-Mart from construction. He told the newspaper that Wal-Mart “would be ready to break ground tomorrow” if the county’s water shortage could be solved. But that opinion is not shared by the Somerset County Economic Development Commission, who says Wal-Mart has larger economic reasons for not beginning the project. “This water issue has not delayed Wal-Mart,” he told the Daily Times. There is no disagreement, however, that Wal-Mart’s facility will drink a lot of water. The county estimates that the DC itself will consume 85,000 gallons per day, or 31 million gallons in a year. The plant will also require the construction of a water town capable of holding 300,000 gallons of water for fire protection.
Wal-Mart announced in November 2004 that it was going to open a general merchandise distribution center by the fall of 2006. The company is now two years off schedule. Wal-Mart was not able to gain control of the property itself until the summer of 2007. Now the problem is not county officials, but the short supply of water to slake the thirst of new construction in the area. Somerset county is not a high population area. The entire county has just over 26,000 people, compared to 23,440 in 1990. To handle this new water demand, state officials have insisted that the county build a new water treatment system estimated to cost more than $13 million to reduce high levels of fluoride in the water. The county argues that they don’t need the treatment system — and can’t afford it. In the early summer of 2005 when Wal-Mart announced that it had purchased the land, company officials said it is not certain whether Wal-Mart would build a regional distribution center there — or “bank” the property for resale later. Readers are urged to email the President of the Somerset County Board of County Commissioners, James N. Ring at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear President Ring, Wal-Mart has been stringing the county along on this distribution center for 4 years now — with no immediate end in sight. The state has offered them a candy store of taxpayer-financed incentives, but still no project. Wal-Mart admitted three years ago that they might just ‘bank’ the land for resale later. It’s time for the county to urge Wal-Mart to sell their land and allow some other developer to make use of it — someone that won’t need 31 million gallons of water a year to be viable. No industrial development is guaranteed permanent — but how long do you really think Wal-Mart will be around — and what happens when they decide to move their facility somewhere else? These distribution centers are costly facilities, requiring on-going road maintenance, and they don’t produce the level of jobs available compared to high-tech enterprises. Tell Wal-Mart you are tired of waiting for signals from them, and would like to see something more productive happen to that land.”