New chance at Matapeake Revival: Federal and state attempts to find a use for a 617,000-square foot shed failed. Now, Queen Anne's County is taking a crack at it.

March 28, 1997|By DAIL WILLIS | DAIL WILLIS,SUN STAFF

MATAPEAKE -- "This is the Western Shore we're on now," says Wes Johnson, director of Queen Anne's County Parks and Recreation Department, as he indicates an elaborately curved 3-foot stretch of dirty concrete with his flashlight. Above his head, a sign that says "Potomac" dangles from a rafter, its letters blurred by rust and dust.

His voice echoes through the darkness of a 14-acre warehouse that many consider the biggest real-estate white elephant on the Eastern Shore, maybe even in the entire state -- the mammoth shed that once sheltered a working scale replica of the bay and its tributaries created in concrete and used for research from 1976 to 1984.

For more than a decade, the sprawling shed has been a huge unsolved problem, as one governmental agency after another tried and failed to find a use for 617,000 square feet of warehouse space. Now Queen Anne's County has come up with a prospective tenant, and local hopes are rising again for the building with such a long and formidable history of failure.

"We're going to try our hand at it -- the state and feds have tried theirs," said George O'Donnell, president of the Queen Anne's County Commission, which has asked the state for the title to the building and the 55 acres of waterfront land it occupies.

"It's the largest building on the Eastern Shore," O'Donnell said

A contract is being negotiated with a company called the Matapeake Terminal Corp., county officials said, and if successful, the arrangement would be the anchor in a public-private partnership. Matapeake Terminal plans to use about 75 percent of the building for storage of large amounts of paper used by printing companies and newspapers.

The county will maintain and try to find tenants for the rest, and use the waterfront land around the building as a county recreation area.

Even though the prospective tenant has expressed willingness to make necessary repairs -- an estimated $3 million to fix the roof alone, according to Johnson -- county officials' optimism is tempered with caution.

"I don't know of one positive thing that's happened there since it was built," says O'Donnell, a Queen Anne's County native who remembers watching the building's dedication in 1976. "I grew up with that facility. It just sat there in mothballs."

Popular idea

When the Chesapeake Bay Hydraulic Model was proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers in the late 1960s, nearly every county on the Eastern Shore, and a couple on the Western Shore, lobbied for it. The Matapeake site in Queen Anne's County was chosen, and construction began in 1973.

Three years later, the Corps officially opened the model. It occupied 8 acres of the building, and its concrete floor was carved to copy the Chesapeake's every curve and cove and river, from the Susquehanna to the James.

A vast array of tanks, pumps, computers and valves moved 450,000 gallons of water around to simulate the bay's tides -- although it took another two years to calibrate the model so that it correctly reproduced the movement of wind and water, according to Doug Garman, spokesman for the Corps' Baltimore office.

By 1978, it was being used for research. Among those who worked on it was Trappe resident John Chamberlin. He remains convinced that such hydraulic modeling is a valuable scientific tool.

"You hear all this stuff about what computers can do, but I've never seen them do it," he says. Unlike computers, the model offered a dramatic way to see the environmental consequences of even a small toxic spill, he said -- and it was accessible to the public.

"It was a tremendous public draw," he said. "People could actually see what we were doing. There's so many experimental and scientific things that you never see."

Turf wars

Chamberlin says that the model was a casualty of turf wars between the Corps and Environmental Protection Agency; the Corps will say only that the model was expensive (about $750,000 a year in operating money) and computer modeling is as effective and cheaper.

In 1984, despite pleas from Maryland's congressional delegation, the model lost its funding and the Corps of Engineers vacated the building.

Left empty for a time, the building then was passed around in the federal government -- the National Security Agency used it for storage, among others.

The federal government gave it back to Maryland, and the state tried to turn it into a private aquaculture facility.

But a shrimp business failed, leaving behind empty tanks and a bay replica with chunks of concrete broken from it. A second aquaculture business also went bankrupt.

Meanwhile, according to Johnson, the building was steadily deteriorating, year after year -- a process considerably accelerated by vandals, who picked locks and climbed in through the roof to steal or smash the building's contents.

For the past few months, Johnson has been trying to clean up the building -- a Herculean task.

Scattered around the building's 14 acres are two rusted cars, several trailers, bits and pieces of furniture and computers, as well as water tanks, valves and motors.

Like O'Donnell, Johnson hopes that this time, the building will become a profitable showcase for the county, instead of just a white elephant aging fast and badly.

"There's 55 acres here," Johnson says of the site. "It's a hell of a resource and it's a shame to see it go to waste."

Pub Date: 3/28/97

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