Co-op still waits for seafood processing Cost of health issues delays renovation

November 25, 1990|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Anne Arundel Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- The table where men used to shuck plump oysters from their shells is covered with dust; the room that hummed with activity for 78 blue crab seasons is dark and musty.

One year ago, officials representing the city of Annapolis and several state agencies reopened the former McNasby Oyster Co. in Eastport. With much fanfare, they heralded the return of seafood processing to the Annapolis waterfront.

Twelve months and $1.2 million in government funds later, little has changed inside the processing facility. Now owned by the city and leased to the Maryland Watermen's Cooperative, the plant's brick and block building hosts a retail outlet, dock and storage area where oysters, clams and crabs are bought and sold.

But the processing line, the 40-foot shucking table, conveyor belts, refrigerated coolers and the other effects of a seafood processing plant remain as silent as the day McNasby's closed in 1987.

"If something doesn't happen, we're going under, and that's the bottom line," said co-op member Bill Boulter, 35, of Arnold. "They left uswith a pretty picture, but that's about it."

City officials say the problem is that state health inspectors won't allow the facility to be reopened until improvements are made. The inspectors' 12-page report issued in the spring calls for numerous alterations to the 81-year-old plant to improve sanitation and cleanliness.

The estimated $175,000 cost of those renovations was never factored into the original McNasby's proposal, however. County

health inspectors had previously given the facility a clean bill of health.

"The project turned out to be a little more expensive than we thought it would be," said Mary Burkholder, a senior city planner who has been soliciting state agencies for the needed money without success since the early summer. "I haven't given up hope that we'll eventually be funded."

Nevertheless, the city's failure to restore the plant fully is troubling to many of the 49 watermen who are members of the cooperative.

They had hoped that the restoration of McNasby's would allow them greater independence from the tyranny of the wholesale seafood economy.

"It's time the watermen developed a market they could have some control over and maybe get a better price," said Bill Rice, 35, a Charles County oysterman. "The renovation has dragged on and on, and that's one of the most disappointing things."

The Annapolis waterfront, which hosted more than a dozen seafood plants at the turn of the century, has been without a processing facility since McNasby's closed. Before the McNasby's site was purchased from a developer, it was slated to become another waterfront restaurant.

Most of the seafood houses fell victim to long-term declines in Chesapeake Bay species, rocketing waterfront land values and changes that allowed watermen to truck fresh seafood to market.

The Maryland Watermen's Cooperative is the only organization of its kind in Maryland. Traditionally independent and often fiercely so, watermen have been reluctant to pool their resources in the past. Even now, the yearling cooperative has found it rough going.

For instance, federal guidelines require co-ops to buy at least half their product from co-op members. Watermen, who have traditionally sought the best price for their catch each day, have sometimes been reluctant to sell to their own enterprise.

Worse, members have undercut the cooperative on occasion by selling directly to the co-op's wholesale customers, said Andrew J. Kaelin, 44, the co-op's manager, who works

with a staff of three.

"It's dumb, but they do it," said Bill Sieling, seafood marketing chief for the state Department of Agriculture. "Delayed gratification is a difficult concept for them."

Organizers say the cooperative has yet to turn a profit and has been unable to obtain enough credit. A modest $45,000 loan and the little more than $50,000 earned from fees assessed to new members have financed the enterprise so far -- a "small sum of money to operate in the seafood business," said Mr. Kaelin.

Nevertheless, the project has helped preserve the city's maritime heritage, and all involved say the cooperative holds great promise, particularly if it can expand into seafood processing.

"I'm satisfied just that it's there," said Annapolis Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins.

One of the company's greatest assets may be its manager. Mr. Kaelin, a part-time consultant to the World Bank, is a seafood marketing veteran, working with shrimp farms in such diverse locales as Panama and China.

Hoping to expand the cooperative's markets and export products overseas, Mr. Kaelin is attempting to develop a cryogenically frozen cooked blue crab that will appeal to consumers in Japan and Europe.

A watermen's cooperative "is something that's long overdue," Mr. Kaelin said. "In essence, we want to be able to dictate to the market instead of the market always dictating to the watermen.

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