Derailed seafood co-op finally nears opening Watermen's hopes high for processing plant

May 15, 1992|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Staff Writer

It's just days before the reopening of the Maryland Watermen's Cooperative -- a project pegged as the savior of seafood processing in a city steeped in maritime tradition -- and manager Doug Orr is what you might call "in demand."

From his cramped office in the Eastport plant on Back Creek, he puts one caller on hold to discuss the day's crab catch with a restaurant owner on another line.

"I don't have much," Orr tells the restaurateur. "It's a day-by-day thing. It depends on the next couple days' catch."

When the phones stop, Orr steps from his office to find a line of people. One wants a few bushels of crabs, another to sell him a service. Yet another asks what to load in a co-op delivery truck.

In the background, the buzz of drills reverberates through the former McNasby Oyster Co., a 100-year-old plant that closed in 1987 as the city's last seafood processor. To modernize the historic red-brick building, workers are installing washable walls, airtight windows and suspended ceilings to conceal splintered rafters. They've removed concrete shucking tables to make room for the stainless steel version.

When they finish their part of $315,000 in renovations, contractors and volunteers will have created a state-of-the-art plant, capable of processing all the seafood co-op watermen harvest, then selling it both retail and wholesale, Orr said. It will be one of two seafood plants in the county and the only one in Annapolis, where such companies once dominated the waterfront.

"We've been losing more and more [seafood plants] as developers buy up property and develop it," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. "This will be a vital part of the seafood business in the future."

The co-op will provide a stable, consistent market for its 54 members and a ready supply of fresh seafood for consumers, Orr says.

"You get rid of all the middlemen," he says. "The restaurants know they're buying directly from the crabbers, with quality control and total accountability."

Detractors complain of government subsidizing a private business. During its 2 1/2 -year history, the project has been plagued by delays and extra expenses to meet unanticipated health regulations, all of which have heightened objections.

The project jumped off track soon after September 1989, when city officials bought the plant with state, local and private financing, and leased it to the co-op.

To the dismay of city officials and watermen who opened the plant under county Health Department rules, health inspectors refused to allow processing until the plant met state sanitation and cleanliness standards. In March 1990, state inspectors sent the city a 12-page list of required renovations, such as sprinklers, new restrooms and quarry tile flooring.

"It was a can of worms no one anticipated," says Orr, who hopes processing can start by the end of the month. "Co-op members had to bite the bullet for two years and suffer financial losses."

The project, which includes a $300,000, half-acre waterfront park and Eastport museum, has cost $1.3 million, paid for by $160,000 in city funds and a mix of county and state grants and loans.

Since opening, the co-op has sold oysters, crabs, rockfish and clams wholesale to shucking houses, restaurants and supermarkets in and out of state and run a retail fish market. But with no way to process its seafood, the co-op never turned a profit.

Annapolis resident Fred Kittel is troubled by the money-losing track record, especially when disease and over-harvesting have devastated a once-abundant Chesapeake Bay oyster population.

"I'll be darned if I know one person in Annapolis who wants the city to attempt to run an oyster plant," said Kittel. "The whole thing seems foolish. It seems they'd be better off if they'd drop the whole thing and cut their losses and put the property back on the tax rolls. I hate to see the city tax money go down the drain."

Orr argues that the project provides jobs and supports watermen who give the region its identity. He'll hire up to 35 crab pickers, assistants, drivers and retail workers and then shuckers for the fall oyster season.

"The city has a commitment to the project," said Emory Harrison, director of city Central Services. "We want to see it up and running and see the watermen up and running, and see business in Eastport."

Since renovations began late last year, much progress has been made, Orr says. During a tour of the plant, he pointed out two separate rooms for oyster shucking and crab picking and another for steaming crabs; a remodeled retail outlet and kitchen, and a new locker room for workers' belongings.

Contractors also installed air conditioning and a new drainage system. When watermen volunteered to jackhammer concrete floors and install new sewer pipes, they found, to their surprise, that the old system drained into the bay. In the new plant, Orr promises none of that.

"It will become one of the most modern plants, preserving history but meeting the highest health standards," he said. "We're trying to end up with a facility that is a showpiece of how a processing plant should be."

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