Inner Harbor paddle boats sit idle as owner fights city over dock

Business has been there for 24 years

May 11, 1999|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Teen-agers strolled along the wharf, ducks paddled in the harbor, banners waved, music blared and a homeless man in a filthy T-shirt cursed at his shoes.

It was a normal spring day on the Inner Harbor yesterday except for one thing: For the first time in nearly a quarter century, a "closed" sign hung across the bridge to the paddle boat dock.

The owner of the business, Ed Kane, said he chained up his 52 boats Sunday because of a legal fight over whether the city has the right to kick him out and replace him with a group that promises to pay the city more rent.

Kane argues that he owns the floating dock and says the city has no right to drive out a business that attracted people to the Inner Harbor when it was nothing but warehouses and construction sites.

"I am very upset about this because we are the oldest business in the harbor, and we gave it life when it was rather moribund," said Kane, 68, who also owns the harbor's Water Taxi business.

The shutdown comes at a bad time, with thousands of tourists expected this week at the annual Preakness Celebration for the more than century-old thoroughbred race.

City officials say they own the roughly 100 feet of dock space and that Kane must leave because his lease ran out March 31 and he lost a public bidding process for the paddle boat franchise April 14.

The winner was the Living Classrooms Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization that promised to pay the city $75,000 a year instead of Kane's $60,000 and use the property to create a job-training program for inner-city youths.

The group, which is based beside the harbor, hopes to boost tourism by linking all of the historic sites scattered around the city's waterfront under the single banner of the National Historic Seaport of Baltimore.

Baltimore Circuit Judge William Quarles ruled Thursday that Kane must abandon ship.

Kane says he will obey the order but plans to appeal the decision, win back his docks and reopen his paddle boat business in perhaps a few weeks.

City attorney Michael Raimondi said yesterday that it is absurd for Kane's Harbor Boating Inc. to claim that it owns the dock because the city reimbursed the company for the approximately $70,000 cost of its construction in 1990.

"It's as if you hired a contractor to build a room in your home, you paid the contractor, and at the end of the day the contractor has the audacity to accept the money and claim they own not only the room but the whole house," Raimondi said.

James Piper Bond, president of the Living Classrooms Foundation, said that his organization hopes to reopen the paddle boats as soon as possible and that he's hoping that Kane will speed the process by selling his boats to the group.

Bond said that his organization won the bidding in a fair and open process, not only because it offered more money but also because his organization hopes to do more to boost tourism and provide jobs for inner-city youths.

"We are anxious to get rolling, and we can start as soon as he vacates the premises," Bond said yesterday. "What we offer is better for the city, it's better for the kids and it's better for the National Historic Seaport."

Bond said Kane's water taxi business would likely benefit from the seaport tours that the foundation is organizing. Kane has agreed to work with the foundation to provide water taxi service to Fort McHenry and other historic sites.

Whatever the merits of the arguments, Kane's refusal to give up the pier is a symptom of his attachment to the harbor.

A former public affairs executive with Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., Kane is the son and grandson of shipping company managers in the Inner Harbor.

He said he dreamed up the paddle boat business in 1972 when he was executive director of the Baltimore City Fair on the harbor.

At the time, the now-booming waterfront offered nothing but a hot dog stand, a construction site and some old warehouses.

But Kane said he realized the harbor's potential when thousands of people packed a water-skiing exhibition he organized for the fair.

After opening the business with his sons in 1975, he struggled for a few years before the Rouse Co. built Harborplace in 1980.

The success of the paddle boats inspired Kane to open his water taxi service, which has 12 boats, 110 employees and about 500,000 passengers a year.

Kane estimates that 200,000 people rode his paddle boats last year, and 3 million during the past 24 years.

"We were here before anybody cared about the Inner Harbor," Kane said. "I've had a good run, but I also have a deep-seated anger about what has happened to me."

As Kane described the history of his business yesterday, a young girl wearing a backpack ignored the "closed" sign and bounded down the aluminum bridge to the paddle boats. In a gruff voice, Kane reminded her, "It's closed, honey, it's closed."

Another visitor, Jennie Parker, an 18-year-old University of Virginia student, said she drove three hours from Charlottesville as an impulsive getaway during finals week just to ride the paddle boats.

"Baltimore just isn't the same without the paddle boats," she said, looking at the plastic orange, green and yellow boats tied to the dock.

Pub Date: 5/11/99

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