Hopes rise in Essex area for revival Ruppersberger wants waterfront projects

January 21, 1996|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

For the first two years of his life, C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III lived with his family in the cramped quarters of Riverdale Village Apartments in Essex-Middle River.

Today, as Baltimore County executive, he wants to raze most of that now-dilapidated complex to help revive a once-powerful community in the east county that has fallen on hard times.

The demolition of the apartments and proposals to build more single-family houses in the community are part of a multipronged plan that is bringing new hope to the area.

County officials are proposing a mini-Harborplace that could be a destination for boaters and tourists. And they are allocating millions of dollars to spruce up the area's crumbling streets and alleys.

Meanwhile, in nearby Dundalk and Rosedale, the state recently approved the county's first enterprise zone, a project that already has helped companies plan for 150 new jobs.

"We're still pinching ourselves," says Ellen Jackson of Oliver Beach, secretary of the Essex-Middle River Civic Council, an umbrella organization for more than 30 community groups. Even the most hard-bitten cynics in the community are hopeful, she says.

"Lots of people are cautious because Essex-Middle River have gotten lip service before," she says. "We had two county executives born and raised in Essex, but once they got to Towson, they started wearing cuff links and forgot where they came from."

Mr. Ruppersberger said last week that he is most excited about the waterfront project, which is planned for a stretch of the county's 175 miles of Chesapeake Bay, river and creek shoreline.

As the centerpiece of the region's revival, he has proposed an ambitious project on Dark Head Cove near Martin State Airport.

It would have a fish market, restaurant, shops, underground parking and floating docks, with room for expansion to include a hotel and exhibit hall.

"East county has lots of problems but lots of assets," he says. "There is a strong blue-collar work ethic, lots of good communities coming together, and it has what no other portion of the county has. the water."

If the project proves feasible, investment capital, new jobs and tourist spending could bring hundreds of millions of dollars to the area, Mr. Ruppersberger says.

"Dutch isn't just rhetoric," Mrs. Jackson says. "He is showing us that his actions, so far, match his words. We must be careful with our natural resources, like Middle River, but if we don't stop protesting everything and get positive, Essex will be a ghost town."

Essex resident Robert Delsignore is apprehensive about waterfront development but says that "things are better than before. The business enterprise zone in the southeastern county is positive; fixing up the alleys and Eastern Boulevard is positive.

"But I think this is happening because constituent anger has been heard. Let's just say the juice is worth the squeezing."

Political operatives once came to Essex and Dundalk for favors and patronage. People such as state Sen. James A. Pine did the squeezing, and Towson and Annapolis listened.

In the 1960s, 18 Democratic clubs operated on the Eastside. Political bosses from the area held great sway in choosing statewide candidates and seats in the Trial Magistrate Court, positions that did not require a law degree.

"Power is what counts and we had it," says Mr. Pine, who was the Senate majority leader and chairman of the finance committee until he left public office in 1974.

"We had a simple formula: Pay attention to roads, schools," recalls Mr. Pine, a Towson lawyer.

And when Franklin Square Hospital expressed an interest in moving from the city to Baltimore County in the 1960s, Mr. Pine was leading the charge.

"Both Republicans and Democrats got unified on that one," he recalls.

"I got Bethlehem Steel to pitch in with $250,000; other industries kicked in. We were $2 million short for funding the move. Roy Staten [then a state senator from Dundalk] and I went to governor Tawes and the board of public works and got the money appropriated."

Mr. Pine says the inexpensive housing that went up for World War II workers at the Glenn L. Martin aircraft plant was "a headache after the war.

But county officials, he says, rejected a plan to demolish the apartments, opening the door to land speculators.

Meanwhile, the cheap apartments attracted transients who didn't take care of their homes and contributed to crowding, officials say.

"When that started to happen, we just didn't have the right people in office representing us," says Diane Devlin, president of the Hawthorne Civic Association.

"Things happen when you have money, and the area had lost tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs," she says.

"Young people were, and are, moving out to other counties, and more transients were coming into Essex, renting and not caring."

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