A couple years ago, two huge maritime academy training ships docked at the dilapidated Broadway Pier at Fells Point for three days, spewing forth hundreds of cadets to spend their money at neighborhood shops and restaurants.
Since then, the old pier has received a $1.6 million face lift, complete with new pilings and a 10,000-brick promenade stretching 480 feet into the water.
Now, the Texas Clipper and the State of Maine want to come back. But Baltimore officials say the same ships, which easily maneuvered into the rickety old dock in 1988 and 1990, are simply too big for the pier -- even though it's stronger, longer and fancier.
And that seems a little goofy to Fells Point merchants, who're still reeling from City Hall's decision last year to raise the fees for festivals and parades. Like those festivities, ships -- and the tourists they attract -- are Fells Point's economic lifeblood.
"You really could see a difference in business when those ships were here last time," recalled Marge Dean, manager of Jimmy's Restaurant, where first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton visited last week.
"Effectively, they're saying, 'This pier isn't as good as the old ramshackle pier,' " said Steve Bunker, owner of China Sea Marine Trading Co.
Not so, say city officials. It's just that nobody ever thought much about what size ships should dock at the old pier. And now they have.
With the new pier came sophisticated engineering studies that recommended maximum ship tonnage, draft and length. Tall ships are fine. So are most working ships.
But the 433-foot Maine and the 473-foot Clipper -- along with many other training vessels that might want to dock there -- simply exceed the new specifications.
With $1.6 million invested in the rebuilt pier, the city doesn't want to risk damage by a large vessel, says Robert Quilter, an architect with the Department of Housing and Community Development, which has overseen construction of the pier's promenade.
"It could be a catastrophe if it had to be shut down," he said. "After all, there's 10,000 engraved bricks and 10,000 constituents."
(The bricks on the promenade were "purchased" by individuals and businesses for $50 apiece. The promenade is part of the city's planned uninterrupted public walkway around the harbor rim from South Baltimore to Canton.)
In the meantime, the Clipper and the Maine still need a parking place. And there's no spot left, except North Locust Point Marine Terminal, adjacent to Fort McHenry but far removed from Fells Point.
"That's not exactly going to help Fells Point business, which has been disastrous lately," says Chuck Carmichael, operations director for Inchscape, the shipping agency trying to arrange berthing for vessels that train merchant marine officers.
Mr. Carmichael said he fears the ships from Texas A&M University's Maritime Academy and from the Maine Maritime Academy will choose other ports.