``Boating capital'' of Shore Town: In Rock Hall, watermen and those catering to visitors accommodate each other to help old fishing town survive.

October 04, 1998|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

ROCK HALL -- Diane Oliver stands on the dock behind Swan Haven, the posh seven-room bed-and-breakfast she opened three years ago, gazing on the lifeblood of this historic waterfront town -- present and past.

Juxtaposed with nearly 200 sleek sailing and power yachts tied up at Haven Harbour Marina next door is the peeling hulk of a 50-year-old workboat. Stripped of its diesel engine and other equipment, Ole Buck rests on dry land, a display behind the squat clapboard building that houses the Rock Hall Waterman's Museum.

Once the busiest fishing town on the upper Chesapeake Bay, the close-knit, blue-collar community was home to as many as 300 workboats that lined up at dockside processing plants to unload seasonal catches of rockfish, crabs, clams or oysters.

Now, after enduring 20 years or more of declining fortunes in the bay's seafood industry and the sometime-painful transition to an economy built on recreational boating and tourism, natives and newcomers are convinced that the proud heritage -- and the continuing presence of working watermen -- are vital to the future.

"I'm sure some of the locals think of us as chicken-neckers [the derisive term for recreational crabbers], but most people recognize that we've been good for the economy," says Oliver, a Bethesda native who gave up her job as a regional sales manager five years ago to begin renovating the bed-and-breakfast.

"At the same time, none of us want to lose the flavor or character of Rock Hall that makes it different.

"We don't want to become another St. Michaels," says Oliver, whose husband, Harry Newman, spends weekends on the Shore but plans to quit his Washington-area job in a few years.

A growing number of enthusiastic small-business owners such as Oliver have provided a jolt of energy and optimism that is remaking Rock Hall into a tourist destination. At the top of almost everyone's list are transplanted Philadelphians Arlene Douglas and Tom Sabol.

Beyond the upscale marinas and restaurants that have gradually transformed the waterfront during the past 10 to 15 years, pretty much everybody, including the local Chamber of Commerce, points to the couple as the driving force behind a resurgence along the town's one-block Main Street business district.

After discovering Rock Hall as novice sailors, the couple bought an old bungalow on the water, renovated it as a second home, then quickly moved on to the run-down business district. After opening the America's Cup Cafe and bookstore, the couple began fixing up buildings all along the street, quickly converting old storefronts and creating a row of artisans' boutiques known as the Shoppes at Oyster Court.

"It's all just something that snowballed; we never really had a plan," says Douglas. "But we felt that with the number of people coming here, especially the boaters, Main Street had something to offer. They anchor their boats, and they want something to do."

Bringing people in

Ron Fithian, a former waterman who is seeking his second term as a Kent County commissioner and is Rock Hall's town manager, says many scoffed at the idea of a cappuccino bar.

"I figured they'd have a better chance with an all-night poker parlor and cold beer, but you've got to give them credit; they're bringing people in," Fithian says. "The marina business really instigated a lot of the changes, but you've got to have a lot more for people to do if we're going to become more of a destination."

Art and Mary Sue Willis are local developers who took a chance on a dilapidated marina at the southern end of Rock Hall's harbor. More than 20 years later, their Sailing Emporium marina is one of a dozen that ring the harbor and other protected coves -- North Point, Gratitude, Swan Creek and The Haven anchorage.

Going downhill

Rock Hall, population 1,600, has 1,500 to 1,700 boat slips, depending on who's counting.

"When we came, the bay and the seafood industry were in the process of going downhill," says Willis, who, like his wife, is a native of Chestertown, the Kent County seat. "If recreational boating had not become so big, a lot of these old towns on the water would have just died."

In addition to tripling the size of the marina, which Willis says became feasible when the harbor was dredged and jetties improved in the early 1980s, the couple gambled on a Main Street landmark long before it was fashionable.

In 1987, they bought the old Durding's Drug Store, refurbishing the 1925 soda fountain, polishing the original wood floors and painting its pressed-tin ceilings to create an ice cream parlor in the building at Main and Sharp streets, across the street from the America's Cup Cafe.

"I think that people were wary, suspicious when things began to change, but over time, it's their attitudes that have changed," Willis says. "I think that things have broadened so that a lot of the new has become the heartbeat of Rock Hall. It's not exclusively a waterman's town."

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