County east side waits for ship to come in Executive's dream of 'mini-Harborplace' is a fading memory


September 06, 1998|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

In the glow of election victory, Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger unveiled his grand "mini-Harborplace" -- privately financed waterfront reverie that would crown the east county's revitalization.

Four years later, Ruppersberger has shoveled more than $140 million into rebuilding the eastern communities, but his dream for a four-star restaurant, a maritime museum and retail shops on Dark Head Cove, not far from the Chesapeake Bay, is a fading memory.

Critics say his administration has failed to capitalize on Baltimore County's greatest asset -- 175 miles of creeks, coves and rivers -- and push strongly for a waterfront destination that could compete with Havre de Grace, Chestertown and Rock Hall, bringing badly needed money to the area.

"They missed the boat when it came to attracting the tourist dollar to our area," said Wayne Miskiewicz, president of the Marine Trades Association, which represents waterfront businesses.

"Those of us on the water are just disappointed the county hasn't taken the bull by the horns and pushed for backers while doing the other things they had to do, like getting rid of the crime areas," Miskiewicz said.

These days, Ruppersberger is instead touting a less ambitious, privately funded endeavor known as Hopewell Pointe, where construction is expected to begin by 2000. But the shorefront housing complex and marina-restaurant on Hopkins Landing peninsula is a far cry from the executive's grand vision for Dark Head Cove, a deep-water lagoon at the head of Middle River near Martin State Airport.

"I haven't switched, but I have to be pragmatic," Ruppersberger said recently. "If someone comes in with private money to develop on Dark Head Cove, that would be great. But I don't see anybody banging on our door. Hopewell Pointe is more reality than vision."

Frustrated, Miskiewicz's organization is starting a web site and national advertising campaign touting the county's vast waterfront and its developmental promise. And a private corporation has been examining the economic feasibility of forging ahead and developing Dark Head Cove.

The proposal -- first outlined by county officials in the summer of 1995 -- called for a mini-Harborplace on 45 acres owned by Lockheed Martin Corp.

The idea was hatched by Jack Dillon, an imaginative and respected member of the county planning department who is retired. A partial conceptual drawing depicted a facility about half the size of a Harborplace pavilion and included 150 day-use boat slips, landscaping and open space for significant expansion.

Such a development would have been a boon to eastern Baltimore County communities that have suffered the loss of tens of thousands of well-paying industrial jobs.

But county officials say the project is only part of the east side revitalization. Development of the county's shoreline must be preceded by the demolition of decaying World War II-era apartment complexes. The proposed mini-Harborplace site lies across the water from Chesapeake Village, an apartment complex that the county plans to raze.

In theory, new homes, improved schools and a revamped infrastructure would attract larger investors who could bankroll Ruppersberger's shoreline Adream.

But an early feasibility study for Dark Head Cove revealed little interest by private developers

Indeed, the Hopewell Pointe project, a few miles away, underscores the importance of private involvement. A team of developers, dubbed the "Five Amigos," is investing $34 million to build a residential community and upscale restaurant marina.

That project calls for 221 semi-detached homes and waterfront condominiums on a 55-acre site, on a creek leading into Middle River.

"Obviously," said Ellwood A. Sinsky, one of the developers, "we wouldn't have put our money into the project if we didn't believe in it."

Adds Thomas Carski, one of Sinsky's partners: "We think we're in front of the development community that will awaken when state Route 43 comes over from White Marsh. This area will explode, but it won't happen overnight."

Tourist attraction

The county is hoping to help pave the way for a transformation of the east side, where former shore shacks have been converted into waterfront homes and where corporate executives are attracted by the proximity of Middle River and Bowley's Quarters to office centers in Baltimore, Hunt Valley and Owings Mills.

But the county also had envisioned parlaying its waterfront into a tourist attraction. According to a 1994 economic impact study commissioned by the marine association, the recreational marine industry on the east side accounts for $130 million annually -- from payrolls and taxes to boat repair yards, food, fuel and marina rentals.

Miskiewicz said nearly half of boaters who ply the Chesapeake Bay and the rivers and creeks off Baltimore County are from Pennsylvania, Virginia and even the Midwest.

Boat owners spent more than $1 billion on trips, new and used boats and related expenses, a University of Maryland study showed in 1993.

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