Co-op Collects Praise, But No Profit, After First Year

November 29, 1990|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Staff writer

The dusty rooms in the old McNasby Oyster Co. plant look like the abandoned basement of a very old house. It seems impossible that employees once worked there, standing before a 40-foot-long shucking table, dropping shells onto a conveyor belt.

The equipment has stood idle since 1987, when Annapolis' last seafood processor closed after 78 years in business.

In another part of the Eastport plant, though, in a partially enclosed bay area at the docks overlooking Back Creek, there's plenty of life.

During the past year, members of the Maryland Watermen's Cooperative have hauled in crabs, clams and oysters to sell through wholesale and retail outlets.

In the last three months, the cooperative grossed between $40,000 and $45,000 a month.

Yesterday afternoon, city officials and planners gathered for the co-op's first anniversary and for a pat on the back from the Maryland chapter of the American Planning Association. The national association honored Annapolis city officials for buying the plant last September for $1.2 million with state and private financing, then leasing it to the cooperative, which has 50 members from nine counties.

Officials spoke about the co-op's part in reviving the city's seafood processing industry, preserving Eastport's maritime heritage and giving watermen a chance to compete with nearby states.

"A year ago today this was an empty building," said Alderwoman Ellen O.

Moyer, D-Ward 8, who first proposed saving the processing plant. "There was nothing here but an idea and a dream."

"Why would we spend money for something dead?" asked Annapolis Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins. "It may look dead to you, but this is a part of our heritage."

He recalled Eastport as a fishing village of 300 families, where "something drastic happened in our environment. A village of watermen disappeared."

But none of the officials had forgotten the dusty, unoccupied rooms.

The co-op, which has failed so far to turn a profit, needs a processing plant to stay competitive by increasing the seafood's value and enabling the co-op to export produce overseas, said Andrew Kaelin, who ran a shrimp farm in Panama before joining the co-op as manager in June.

"If you do (process seafood) somewhere else, you have to pay a processing fee," Kaelin said. "We want to compete with shucked oysters."

But state health inspectors have refused to allow the processing operation to re-open until it meets sanitation and cleanliness standards.

When the city bought the plant, it fell under the jurisdiction of the county Health Department and met that department's standards, said Mary Burkholder, senior planner with the city Department of Planning and Zoning.

But when the co-op opened its retail division last November, city officials learned they'd have to meet state health guidelines. In March, state inspectors sent the city a 12-page list of required renovations, such as installation of a $25,000 sprinkler, new restrooms and showers and quarry tile flooring. The improvements will cost $175,000.

City officials immediately applied for low-interest, state-sponsored loans, Burkholder said.

"From July to October, we were under the impression we would be funded," she said.

But three weeks ago, she said, she learned the state money had dried up.

She said she is now considering options such as a bank loan or a city bond issue.

The co-op, financed by a $45,000 loan and new members' fees, is the only one of its kind in the state. It may be the only one of its kind --distributing more than one variety of seafood -- in the nation, said Bill Brockhouse of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Cooperative Service.

Most of the seafood plants that once operated along the Annapolis waterfront closed after Chesapeake Bay harvests declined and waterfront land values shot up.

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