Lost cause in Eastport

March 01, 1994

It seemed such an appealing idea at the time -- 54 watermen banding together with the help of the city of Annapolis to start a seafood processing plant in a building that reeks of the state capital's maritime past.

Looking back, though, the Maryland Waterman's Cooperative was a lost cause. And while some people still believe a seafood packing plant can work in Annapolis, the sad reality seems to be that, just as the era of mom and pop shops on Main Street is gone, so are Annapolis' days as a working fishing village.

The watermen did everything they could to make the co-op work. They gave up trying to run it themselves when things got bad and turned to joint-venture partnerships with other businesses. They contributed their own money. But they were fighting a losing battle from day one.

Not until after the city had bought the old McNasby's Oyster Co. facility did the watermen learn they were facing more expensive upgrades than they had thought. Repair costs and bureaucratic delays meant they never had enough money to buy seafood to process. Add poor crab and oyster harvests, and it is clear why this idealistic venture never got off the ground.

Without the watermen's rent payments, officials in the city of Annapolis are stuck trying to figure out how to cover a $750,000 loan it took out to finance the project. It also faces the dilemma of how to turn a $1.3 million processing plant into something other than a white elephant. Alderman Ellen Moyer, a loyal protector of Eastport's maritime heritage, said she would like to look for other seafood operators, but, after the co-op debacle, the city should be leery.

Although it is possible another seafood venture could work if an operator with tons of money appeared, two facts weigh heavily against this: The first is the sickly state of the seafood processing industry in general. The second is that watermen, by their nature, are independent souls rather than cooperative ones. The message in the failure of the co-op, along with the unrelated departure of Rookie's grocery and other downtown landmarks, is this: the secret to restoring Annapolis' prosperity does not lie in the past. It lies with giving tourists and residents shops and services they can't get at the malls and continuing to remain open to risky but potentially beneficial concepts such as the proposed conference center. Nostalgia and good intentions are not enough.

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