Ten years after engineers abandoned a huge working model of the Chesapeake Bay on Kent Island, the state has embarked on a plan to a resurrect the 55-acre facility -- by turning it into a shrimp farm.
The Board of Public Works yesterday voted to let a Washington-based computer and aquaculture company use part of the 14-acre building housing the model to test an experimental shrimp-growing technique.
The Maryland Shrimp Co. will not have to pay rent for six months, but will have to make repairs on the leaky metal roof and install its own equipment, including water pipes and heaters.
If the company proves it can grow shrimp profitably, the state will then negotiate a rent with the company.
Rick Schroder, technical director of Maryland Shrimp, said yesterday that he will meet with Queen Anne's County government officials this week and hopes to start construction by Oct. 1. He said he expects the company to spend about $16,000 installing the equipment necessary for the six-month test.
The 86-employee company never before has built or operated a shrimp farm, Mr. Schroder said.
Most of the company's revenues come from two computer subsidiaries: Document Input Solutions and Federal Data Information Services. The computer and aquaculture companies are owned by area businesswoman Karee Heighton, he said.
But Mr. Schroder said he is confident the shrimp farm will succeed. Company staffers have been researching shrimp aquaculture for the last eight years, he said, and have helped build sturgeon farms in Russia.
The company plans to raise a species of shrimp that is found occasionally in the Chesapeake Bay, but is more common farther south in the Atlantic.
The shrimp won't be grown in the model of the bay, which Mr. Schroder said is crumbling, but in eight plastic tanks which will keep the shrimp heated to 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
The shrimp farm will employ about 12 people through the middle of next year, he said.
If the project works, Mr. Schroder says the company plans to turn the state building, which is next to Matapeake State Park, into a breeder facility, then have farmers in the area raise the shrimp for sale to restaurants.
He said the company hopes to spend $8 million to employ about 120 people and grow 158 million pounds of shrimp a year.
The company believes it can grow the shrimp for $2.90 a pound, and sell them on the wholesale market for about $5.20 a pound.
State officials who have examined the proposal say the project is a gamble, but one worth taking.
"This is the first time anyone has tried to grow shrimp this far north," said Bradley Powers, director of aquaculture and seafood programs for the state's Department of Agriculture.
The northernmost successful shrimp farm in the United States is in South Carolina, he said.
In addition, the company's plan to grow shrimp in big plastic tanks is also unproven.
The building, which was turned into a warehouse after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave up on the bay model, has been unoccupied since 1992. The federal government returned the parcel to the state in January.
"We want to give them an opportunity to try. Some of the best things that have happened in the world are things that people said you can't do," Mr. Powers said.
After examining the company and its plans, "I'm convinced it is doable," Mr. Powers said. The only remaining question: "But is it economical?"