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Planners See Challenges as Shore Population Ages

The earliest published version of this story misspelled the name of the Talbot County director of permits and inspections. His name is Dan Cowee.

By Linda Nishida
Capital News Service
Friday, Nov. 5, 2004

WASHINGTON - Attracted by waterfront property, a temperate climate and a relaxed environment, older workers and retirees are flocking to Talbot County, making it the oldest county in the state with a median age of 43.8 years in 2003.

But Talbot is not alone, according to an analysis of the Census Bureau's most recent population estimates. Much of the Eastern Shore, a region called "Grayshore" by one expert, is experiencing the same trend.

That trend will result in serious problems if the region does not do something about it now, said Memo Diriker, director of BEACON -- Salisbury University's Business, Economic and Community Outreach Network.

"We are not yet prepared for what aging is going to mean for the shore," said Diriker, who coined the term "Grayshore." "Right now, it's not a crisis, but it's trending towards that direction."

The four oldest jurisdictions in the state were all on the Eastern Shore. After Talbot came Worcester County, with a median age of 42.9 years; Kent County, with a median age of 41.5; and Dorchester County, at 41.2 years.

No other county in the state had a median age above 40 years. The statewide median age in 2003 was 36.7 years.

Diriker said that increase on the shore is being driven by three factors: the aging of the resident population, an influx of older newcomers and the continuing exodus of younger residents. Unless the region plans for it, he said, those trends will lead to a future shortage of senior services, and workers to provide them.

"I see in this the makings of a plane crash or a train wreck," Diriker said.

County planners agree. Karen Houtman, assistant director for Dorchester County's planning and zoning office, said that she sees a need to increase medical and support services in order to accommodate the future senior boom.

"To me it's a concern . . . because we're going to need services for them that we don't have right now," Houtman said. "We don't have many doctors in the area. I think that's something that we need to consider and encourage."

Carla Martin, a community planner for Kent County, said it is important to have a "balanced population" as the county tries to anticipate the need for different services.

"While the older residents don't need schools, they need paramedics, they need medical services, they need support services that are traditionally held by younger residents," she said.

Talbot County officials said one way to balance populations is to address some of the problems that are driving young people out, including a lack of jobs and affordable homes.

"Our economic base is not attractive to young professionals," said George Kinney, Talbot County's planning director for future projections. "To attract and retain younger folks, we're going to need to put together a package of affordable housing, jobs and better commutes to those jobs."

Unless that happens, Kinney said, more than a third of the county's population will be 65 or older by 2030, a projection he hopes will change once the county brings in more businesses in need of younger workers.

The 65-and-older population in the Lower Shore is expected to grow 75 percent by 2030, when that group will make up roughly a quarter of all residents of the region, according to the Maryland Department of Planning.

But until then, the region's older population will continue to reap the benefits of a lifestyle that seems tailor-made for them, said Dan Cowee, Talbot County's director of permits and inspections.

"You're in a very rural land of pleasant living," he said. "It's very low-key, it's very easygoing and you're not dealing with the stress of the larger metro area, but you have the benefits of it within an hour's drive."

Copyright 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

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