When the Maryland Watermen's Cooperative opened after nearly a three-year wait and a $1.2 million government investment, it was seen as the best hope of revitalizing the area's once-robust seafood industry.
Six months later, the refurbished oyster shucking room, the 40-foot stainless steel tables, the crab kettles and processing line stand as idle as the day the former McNasby Oyster Co. closed.
Instead of returning seafood processing to the Eastport waterfront, the watermen's co-op that leases the old McNasby's plant is struggling to survive.
The project, heralded as the savior of Annapolis' maritime tradition, has been the victim of costly delays and the decline of crabs and oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. And while the watermen are bracing for another lean year, critics have attacked the project for failing to turn a profit and for relying too heavily on state and city subsidies.
"It's just been a bad situation," acknowledged Robert Brown, a ++ 42-year-old waterman from St. Mary's County who is vice president of the cooperative. "Nothing went as planned, and the timing was terrible. We had a very bad crab season, the oyster season is fairly non-existent, and we're trying to start up a major business. It's been a mess."
Delays in finishing the processing area cost the 54 watermen who own shares in the cooperative another crab-picking season, said Doug Orr, who resigned as interim manager at the end of last week.
The cooperative still doesn't have a permit to shuck oysters, and the walk-in market and loading area have no heat, he said.
Frustrated by the lingering problems, Mr. Orr has criticized the handling of the project.
"This was a big risk for the watermen, and they've paid the price," he said. "Planning and Zoning did not have the expertise to handle the renovations and design of a seafood plant, and the project was far, far behind."
He said the city's Central Services Department, which took over managing the project in March, should have handled it from the start. But Planning Director Eileen P. Fogarty, while agreeing that Central Services would have been a better choice to oversee the construction, said her department has been unfairly singled out.
William Boulter, president of the cooperative, and many of the members also defended the city planners, saying they worked together to overcome numerous obstacles to reopening the plant.
Nevertheless, delays in reopening the plant were financially draining for the watermen at a time when they're struggling to make ends meet.
Disease and over-harvesting have seriously depleted oyster crops, once the mainstay of the bay's seafood industry. Members of the cooperative are unsure whether they will even apply for a permit to shuck oysters in the 83-year-old plant, since they rarely catch more than a few bushels a day.
Watermen, who have traditionally sought the best price for their catch each day, were sometimes reluctant to sell to their own cooperative and turned to the more lucrative retail stores.
The wholesale end of the business has been strong, but the co-op would be in much better shape if it could offer shucked oysters and packed crab meat, Mr. Boulter said. The watermen lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in the first few years, only breaking even recently, he said.
The Annapolis waterfront had seven oyster-packing plants at the turn of the century. McNasby's was the lone survivor by the time it closed in 1987.
In an attempt to preserve the city's maritime heritage, Annapolis bought the building for $1.1 million in 1989. City officials expected the processing plant would need minimal work, but the state Health Department shut it down for failing to meet new environmental and sanitation standards.
Most of the rooms had to be completely refurbished to meet health regulations and city building codes, and renovations hit delay after delay, thanks largely to the problem of obtaining state grants.
The watermen managed to open a walk-in market at the plant in the first few months and have been shipping crabs and oysters across the nation.
But the seafood processing, which many watermen believe is critical to the co-op's survival, is still not operating as planned.
The watermen, however, say they're still upbeat about the enterprise's success.
"It's tough times all around, but you've got to feel optimistic about it to make it work," Mr. Boulter said.