Tourist draw is proposed for shoreline Plan would include hotel, fish market at Essex-Middle River

'Lots of work to be done'

Area residents worry about boat congestion but want the new jobs

January 14, 1996|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County officials are proposing an ambitious waterfront development -- including a hotel, exhibit hall, fish market, restaurants and shops -- to revive Essex-Middle River's economy and compete with other recreational boating destinations in Maryland.

County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III said he is determined to use a strategic parcel of the county's 175-mile shoreline of rivers, creeks and coves to create a land attraction for boaters and tourists near Martin State Airport.

The long-range proposal, as described by corporate executives and county officials, calls for a mini-Harborplace on 45 acres owned by Lockheed Martin Corp. on Dark Head Cove, a deep-water lagoon at the head of Middle River.

A partial, conceptual drawing depicts a facility about half the size of a Harborplace pavilion, area merchants say. The drawing includes 150 day-use boat slips, landscaping and open space for significant expansion.

"The waterfront is one of the county's greatest assets," Mr. Ruppersberger said. "We must encourage new investment and attract new residents with ideas like this one. If we don't forge ahead with these plans, east county will see poverty continue to mount while the younger residents move away and housing speculators move in."

Such a development would be welcomed in communities that have suffered the loss of tens of thousands of well-paying industrial jobs, but a search has not started for a developer.

If the project proceeds, the county must rezone the land and issue necessary permits.

Area residents, weary of boat congestion on Middle River, are taking a wait-and-see approach.

More than 7,000 boats dock on the river in 33 marinas, and each weekend, hundreds of transient craft transform it into a bustling bay tributary.

"In good weather, Middle River down by Hart-Miller Island can literally be boat-to-boat," said Officer George Carter of the county police marine unit. "While it seems more boats are coming into the area, we haven't figured a way yet to make the river bigger."

Edward Sonberg, who has lived on the river since 1988, said he approves of a development that could produce hundreds of jobs.

"But how do you control the growth?" Mr. Sonberg said. "There are those who would applaud the incoming dollars but not the tourists."

And Shirley Anne Wier, who lives off Sue Creek, said: "I'm 100 percent for the idea. But it's idyllic, not realistic. More boats will present tremendous problems to the waterways -- erosion and unsafe boaters."

Although some residents might fight the project, merchants link it to the area's survival.

Ray Porter, president of the Marine Trades Association of Baltimore County, said economic development moves are crucial revitalize the east county.

"Striking balance here is well within reach," said Mr. Porter, who operates a marina on Seneca Creek. "When planners showed us a conceptual drawing last summer of the Dark Head Cove plan, it was exciting. Whatever form it takes, people could wind up spending a lot of money in the area, creating much-needed jobs."

Mr. Porter said the recreational marine industry in eastern

Baltimore County has an annual economic impact of $130 million, figures based on a 1994 study.

Included in that estimate, he said, are payroll, taxes and tourist dollars spent in restaurants, boat repair yards and marinas.

In 1993, boat owners statewide spent more than $1 billion on trips, new and used boats, and other related expenses, a University of Maryland study shows.

Robert L. Hannon, the county director of economic development, said the project "is merely a concept."

"For instance, we have to look at how such a project would mesh with other facilities in the region," Mr. Hannon said. "We have been talking with people from the Convention Center in Baltimore, the [state fairgrounds] facility at Timonium."

Before a hotel and business center formally is proposed, the county must commission a study to determine whether tourist and business travel would support such an effort, he said.

The county has about 6,000 hotel rooms, with a 60 percent to 90 percent occupancy rate. None of those hotels is on the waterfront, Mr. Hannon said.

"At this point, we're in very preliminary discussions with the county but it definitely sounds interesting," said Tom Quinn, president of LMC Properties Corp., a Lockheed Martin subsidiary. "We were approached last summer by the county for the idea of a large retail fish market where commercial fishermen could bring in their catches and the public could come and buy a fresh product."

Jack Dillon, a senior county planner, said transportation options, such as the neighboring airport and rail service, make the Dark Head Cove site attractive for development. And, he says, the site is removed from major residential areas.

The proposed site is across the water from Chesapeake Village, an apartment complex that the county plans to raze and replace with affordable single-family homes.

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