By Brian Gilliland
(Oct. 24, 2014) For all Virgil Shockley has said over the 16 years he’s been a county commissioner, no one can say he’s doubted anything that’s passed his lips.
Shockley is short in stature with a push-broom mustache, bald pate and a stocky build honed by farming since age 12. He has penetrating eyes that could wither a stalk of the corn with a sidelong glance.
Shockley’s a fifth generation Eastern Shoreman and probably would not argue if anyone called him a farmer first and a politician second. It’s a close call.
The only time he can spare to meet with Ocean City Today is while he’s mowing under a field of corn. His cell phone is by his side and rings about every 15 minutes during the interview. Before we mount his tractor, he looks over the adjoining field of soy that he said he wishes would just die already so he could start working that field.
“This time I think when I get back … one of the first things I want to do is — we had a survey back in 2007 about Wallops Island. At the time we did the survey, we thought things were going to expand a lot quicker than they have obviously… I think Wallops now has the potential to grow substantially in the next five years,” he said.
Shockley explained that the survey drew a 45-minute circle around the facility and found about 20-25 percent of the employees live in Worcester County, mostly in Pocomoke City.
“The interesting thing is the reason they live here is the education, the school system. So that’s kind of our buying card, if you will, for when Wallops does expand,” he said. “You get the people who have what I call the high-money jobs, for lack of a better term, the $60,000-and-up jobs (who) are going to be looking for homes.”
Shockley said there has been a shift in the Wallops culture from contractual to full-time employees, and a search of three popular job listing websites appears to bear him out: Listings of available contractual jobs make up less than half of total Wallops Island opportunities. On one job search engine the number of full-time listings was ten times greater than the contractual ones.
When those people come into Worcester County to stay, Shockley said, those are the people who get involved with the community.
“They get involved with the school programs or helping out on a Saturday, or doing whatever, because usually it’s those people who do that,” he said.
The second reason Shockley wants to retain his seat is to foster broadband’s growth on the Eastern Shore. Back in 2003, he made headlines calling the area a “third world country” with regards to high-speed Internet connectivity. He credits the idea to get involved with providing high-speed Internet access to Worcester County to a cruise he took with his wife.
“I saw a guy flip up his laptop and go on about his business. I walked up and asked him how he was doing that, and came back and said we needed to get on this,” Shockley said.
Through federal and state funds, a backbone — basically an on-ramp to the information superhighway — has been completed. Shockley said, and published reports agree, that 24 sites — universities, libraries, government offices and the like have — been connected to the backbone.
What’s lacking is the coverage of the so-called “last mile,” the bit of conduit, cable or fiber optics that run from these connected entities to the homes and businesses of the Eastern Shore. Because of the rural character and relatively low customer base of areas like Worcester County, profit-driven entities see no value in running these wires.
Shockley said he would like to continue the work he started bringing the Eastern Shore online. He thinks it is the No. 1 barrier to bringing hi-tech jobs to the peninsula.
“That’s one of the reasons we hear businesses are not in the rural parts of the state and Worcester County – they don’t have the levels of access they need,” said Tyler Patton, the Maryland Broadband Cooperative’s vice president of public affairs.
For Shockley, it all usually comes back to farming.
“We have a quality of life. Farming is part of the quality of life. Farming built this county. Tourism became this county,” he said.
“You have about 90-95,000 acres of farms,” Shockley added. “Big moneymaker. Heritage. Obviously this is my livelihood, and someone needs to speak for the farming community and I think I do that.”
When asked to describe what makes a good county commissioner, he hesitates not because he doesn’t know the answer, but because he can’t figure out what to say first.
“Being a commissioner is like having three balls in the air at once, and at any given time the balls can change order. The health and safety of your citizens, quite frankly, is important. You’ve got the sheriff’s department, the health department… on any given day. You’ve got the school system, which is important because our kids are going to take over at some point in time and we’re supposed to be educating them, and you can argue over the point if it’s a good education, but we’re number one in spending per student.”
In a report the Department of Legislative Services prepared in 2014, “Overview of Maryland Local Governments,” Worcester County is indeed at the top of the list.
“I realize sometimes you’re under a lot of pressure to vote for the budgets. I voted against two of the last four budgets,” Shockley said. “One was a 7 percent tax increase, and I voted against it. Quite frankly they didn’t need to raise taxes. When we got the audit in October, after we raised taxes in June, we had $6.9 million, so why raise seven cents when all we needed was three?”
For his part, Shockley’s opponent Ted Elder praised Shockley’s record on budgetary issues.
Shockley has a vision of the county for his children’s future that includes broadband Internet, farming and deep support of the Wallops Island facility. He is certain of his plans and confident in his tone, and will talk to you for as long as you want so long as you’re willing to ride on a tractor with him.