Havre de Grace has growth pains


September 16, 1990|By James Bock | James Bock,Sun Staff Correspondent

HAVRE DE GRACE -- Tugboats ease cargo-laden barges down the Susquehanna River and into the Chesapeake Bay and beyond. Trains rumble across a railroad bridge, a mustache on the river's mouth, and head for Washington or New York.

From its 3 1/2 miles of shoreline at the confluence of river and bay, Havre de Grace placidly watches the world go by.

Or so it seems. But take time out to listen to residents of this city of 9,090, and you'll likely find that Havre de Grace, one of the farthest outposts of the Baltimore metropolitan area, is taking a close look at itself.

The city is hardly apolitical -- nearly half those eligible voted in last Tuesday's primary election, well above Harford County's 36 percent turnout overall -- but the conversation doesn't often turn to the "big" issues like abortion or taxes.

Instead, people here talk about their town, a city in the remaking.

"I think the town's on the move, I really do," said Wilson R. Elliott, the retired manager of the National 5 & 10 downtown, who still works four hours a day.

At 77, Mr. Elliott is old enough to remember Havre de Grace's glory days of fishing and gunning, when loads of rockfish, herring and shad came to local wharves, and waterfowl was so abundant on the Susquehanna Flats that "the water was black, you couldn't see nothing but ducks."

Now he's content to see the city trade on its colorful history and charming locale in an attempt to lure overnighters and day trippers to sail the local waters, dine on the riverfront, stay in Victorian bed-and-breakfasts and buy hand-carved duck decoys and antiques.

When he's not tending the 5 & 10, Mr. Elliott bicycles around town, enjoying the bustling marinas, eyeballing new waterfront condominiums and touting such attractions as the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum to visitors.

Patricia Capp, who runs a fledgling marine supply store, shares the enthusiasm for the new Havre de Grace but tempers it: "I don't mind it growing, but I don't want it to lose the little-town feeling. Right now it's nice. People say hi to you."

"Keep it quaint," said Tony Vincenti, a barber. "Nothing against Bel Air, but my God, it's so busy, the traffic is terrible, you can't park. I went to get these glasses Monday, and I couldn't wait to get out of there."

When it comes to quaintness, Mr. Vincenti pulls his own weight. While waiting for a haircut at his shop, customers can admire his wood carvings or even buy a duck decoy.

Janice Fisher, 28, a sales representative at the Canvasback Cove condominiums, said, "Havre de Grace is becoming more of a class act than it was years ago."

"I graduated from high school in Havre de Grace, and I used to be embarrassed. People looked down on Havre de Grace as low-life. Now it cracks me up that in the little town I was embarrassed of, people are buying second homes here," she said.

Joseph Jobes, 25, carves decoys and thrives on the growing tourism. But he is not sure that Havre de Grace is headed in the right direction.

"I've made decoys and fished and hunted all my life. We've been carving since we could pick up a knife," Mr. Jobes said. His father, Harry, worked for decades with the town's patron saint of decoys, R. Madison Mitchell, and his brothers are decoy makers.

But the Susquehanna Flats no longer teem with wildlife, and Mr. Jobes can't fish or hunt to make a living. He has been reduced to carving decoys full-time -- mallards and canvasbacks, goldeneyes and baldpates, about 20 types in all -- and those he carves usually end up on suburban mantelpieces, not the Susquehanna Flats.

Mr. Jobes is concerned that Havre de Grace, in enticing outsiders to visit, may forget its own residents.

"Now everything is directed towards out-of-state people because they're going to spend more money," he said. "I'd like to see them look out for people in this community. Tourism might go phfffft one day. The town has to take care of people who are going to be there forever."

Steve Lay, 38, says he is -- or was -- Havre de Grace's last waterman. He just took a job test-firing weapons at nearby Aberdeen Proving Ground. The commercial rockfish business is dead, and he fears that overfishing will eventually kill the crab harvest too.

"We did the same thing with the rockfish as we are doing with crabs. Everybody's going out with as much gear as they have catching as many as they can," the waterman said.

Mr. Lay wants the state of Maryland to regulate the resource now, before it's too late.

"I can't see letting watermen go out and catch 100 bushels of females. Females only reproduce once in life," he said. "They're selling them so cheap it's unbelievable. It's quite a shame the business is run that way."

Mr. Lay will continue to keep a 25-foot boat for fishing and crabbing at Havre de Grace's Tydings Park marina, but he said, "It kills me to have to go to work for somebody else."

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