Run-down block in Essex purchased

Elated merchants, officials hope buyer will bring in stores

June 24, 1999|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

A dismal cluster of vacant properties in Essex has been sold for $1 million, according to government and business leaders who say the deal pumps more optimism into the region's battle to restore economic stability.

William H. Bissell, owner of a Parkville bingo hall and auction house, purchased the property this month, said sources familiar with the deal.

"It's a huge acquisition," said Baltimore County Councilman John Olszewski Sr., whose 7th District includes part of Essex. "People have been waiting for years for this to happen."

Neither Bissell nor the former owner of the property, Howard L. Chertkof, responded to telephone requests for interviews. An announcement of the deal is expected next week.

The acquisition is a major step toward improving the neglected 500 block of Eastern Blvd. that was once the heart of Essex's business district. It's the latest in a series of developments -- including a $30 million waterfront community and a new street- scape project in Essex -- that underscore the region's upswing.

County officials would like to see a bank, a restaurant and small shops along the new business strip. "With one person owning the entire block it will be easier for the county to work with him, for the council to perhaps look at some zoning changes if that will help things work," said Olszewski.

Robert Barrett, special assistant to County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, said Bissell, a resident of Bowley's Quarters, could be eligible for tax breaks and other incentives such as loans.

"This is an exciting opportunity to attract quality-market rents and create jobs," he said. "The new owner said he isn't interested in flea markets, so our economic development people are anxious to help this project succeed."

Bissell, a businessman whose wife, Jane, has been active in community conservation projects, is also looking at the possibility of establishing a bowling facility and indoor sports complex in the area, according to some who have talked with him.

Edwin F. Hale Sr., chairman and chief executive officer of First Mariner Bank, said he will begin negotiating to establish a bank branch there.

"The deal sends a good message," Hale said. "There are lots of good people on the east side, people who are careful with their money, and we'd really like to get in there."

The purchase is the latest sign of economic recovery on the east side. In Middle River, investors are building Hopewell Point, a $30 million waterfront community featuring homes and a marina and restaurant. Along the county's 173-mile stretch of shoreline, upscale homes continue to emerge.

Officials and residents also point to the demolition of Riverdale Apartments, a former hotbed for open-air drug markets and prostitution, and Chesapeake Village, both on Eastern Boulevard. A circus is planned next month on the lot where Riverdale stood.

In addition, landlords at the Villages of Tall Trees, another troubled community of apartment complexes, are negotiating with county officials who want to raze the brick buildings there to develop a section of homes.

Del. Nancy Hubers, an Essex Democrat, said attempts to interest prospective buyers of the ramshackle block of Essex had been going on for years.

"So the finalization of the deal is a much-welcomed surprise," Hubers said. "Things are moving in a positive direction."

Chertkof, a Pikesville-based commercial real estate executive, had been asking $1.25 million for the property, according to officials with direct knowledge of Chertkof's previous efforts to sell it.

Barnett said that "indications are he got close to that."

To business leaders such as Frank Brush, executive director of the Essex-Middle River Chamber of Commerce, Bissell's purchase "is by no means a salvation for our region, but it is one more major step toward revitalization of our community."

Brush said the outlay of private funds sends a strong signal to the community and other potential investors.

To some, such as attorney John B. Gontrum, there are still problems with the east side's climb.

"Any time you see property move it's healthy," Gontrum said. "But there should be a bigger plan to upgrade the entire waterfront and make it more accessible to visitors. We have been losing our tax base on the east side and we have to be more creative in drawing people here to both visit and live."

One key to the establishment of a waterfront tourist destination similar to Havre de Grace and Kent Island is the $60 million extension of Route 43 that would connect Middle River with White Marsh.

Despite some community protests, planners say the three-mile highway extension would boost the economic future of the area by opening up about 2,000 acres of industrially zoned land and promote better use of Martin State Airport.

Federal approval of the highway is not expected until next year, however, and construction will not start until 2005 with completion expected three years later.

And with Ruppersberger -- a strong supporter of the east side -- leaving office in three years, residents from Dundalk to Chase fear the next executive will not give as much priority to the region.

Still, all the recent steps are good news for residents such as Joseph DiCara, who lives with his family a block from the recently purchased Eastern Boulevard property.

"I remember as a boy the big fire that burned out the A & P supermarket in the 500 block, a fire that led to the decay," he said. "But there is no reason Essex can't be another Annapolis one day, a beautiful place on the water. You just have to believe in it."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.