The Maryland Watermen's Cooperative looked like a great idea -- a public-private venture that would breathe life back into Annapolis' once-thriving seafood industry. So why isn't it working?
Annapolis leaders must find out soon, while there is still time to save the cooperative and prevent a $1.3 million, state-of-the-art seafood plant from becoming a huge white elephant.
Six months after the cooperative opened in the old McNasby's Oyster Co. plant in the Eastport section of the capital city, it still isn't doing what it must to survive economically: process seafood. The co-op's crab picking permit came too late in the summer to do any good this year. As for oysters, the co-op doesn't have a permit to shuck them and may not bother to apply for one because so few oysters are being caught.
Nothing has gone right for the co-op. Despite good intentions, the city got in over its head when it bought McNasby's in 1987 and let the co-op (which it helped set up) lease the plant.
City leaders, who thought the building would need minimal work, were unprepared when the state Health Department shut it down for failing to meet new environmental and sanitation standards. The resulting delays hurt the watermen.
The co-op's problems can't all be blamed on the city, which has shown a commitment to the project by paying a $2,500 overdue electric bill and discussing a list of unfinished work the watermen want completed. The co-op itself is riddled with discontent.
Its latest manager, Doug Orr, has resigned, citing complaints about the city's handling of the project.
Another problem is simply that crab and oyster seasons have been terrible. How can you hope to start a major seafood packing plant when there isn't enough seafood coming in?
Finally, the nature of watermen is to be independent, not cooperative. They are used to doing things the way they've always done them. The 55 watermen who own shares in the co-op have had a hard time convincing other watermen to bring their business to Eastport instead of seeking the best price for their catch every day.
Perhaps the waterman's innate independence makes seafood processing a poor candidate for a cooperative.
It is too early to declare this project a lost cause, however. Annapolis has invested too much to watch it fail.