Going with the flow

Change: As Wilma Blazek prepares to sell her marina after more than 40 years, investors are discovering the potential of Middle River's waterfront.

October 28, 2001|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Looking west across Dark Head Cove, with the autumn sky streaked in fiery pinks and lavenders, Wilma Blazek celebrates her evening serendipity.

A gull screeches overhead, and the masts of sailboats along the piers sway and ping like wind chimes.

These are the treasures that kept Blazek and her husband, Joseph, running Stansbury Yacht Basin on Baltimore County's east side for more than four decades. Now 80 and a widow for eight years, the matriarch of Middle River is calling it quits. Her boat yard is for sale.

"Just as sure as the river will go its own way, the place is changing - for the good, mind you," Blazek said. "People who say they don't want to see the waterfront over here change don't know the natural way of things."

An offer of about $1 million is on the table for the Stansbury boat yard, the Blazek family says. In addition, at least three other marinas have been purchased or are for sale, owners or officials said. And operators of several other east-side marinas are investing in expansion or modernization projects, hoping to capitalize on the bonanza they see coming, perhaps as soon as next spring.

According to veteran watermen and county officials, the county's 175-mile shoreline is undergoing a quiet transformation while residents await plans for a major waterfront destination at the headwaters of Middle River.

John Polek, president of the Marine Trades Association, said some residents have opposed redevelopment "because they were content with their own private jewel on the water. The county never capitalized on the biggest asset in their midst: the rivers and the bay."

"Even in these unsteady economic times there are a growing number of people who see a future vitality on the water in Middle River, Dundalk and Essex," said William Jones, of the county Office of Economic Development. "And they are putting their money where their mouth is."

Growth and the prospect of more boats concern some residents and environ- mentalists. Some complain that Middle River already is overcrowded on summer weekends and that constant wakes from passing boats are eroding the waterway's banks. That erosion, they say, kills critical submerged grasses that sustain a vast food chain.

Edward Sonberg of Rockaway Beach has lived and fished on the river for 12 years, at a property owned by his family since 1928. He wants a 6-knot speed limit that would be enforced along the length of the river during the summer; now, the speed limit is in force on only part of the river.

"Business and residents can co-exist and all you need is self-regulation. Don't throw that plastic bag into the river," he said. "But I have to say the river is clearer now, more underwater grasses are growing, than I have seen since the 1960s."

The business of boating

Boating is big business in Baltimore County, with sales of everything from fuel to giant cabin cruisers approaching $130 million a year. There are 75 commercial marinas and yacht clubs with 6,500 rental slips. Those numbers do not take into account so-called "dockominiums" - waterfront homes and condos with piers - or the large number of smaller boats lowered by trailers into the county's waters.

The marine industry could grow in an area that over seven years has seen more than $870 million invested in revitalization - much of it focused on the untapped assets of the waterfront.

"Private capital is following public money," said Robert L. Hannon, director of the county Office of Economic Development. "It seems contradictory in these slow economic times, but there are low interest rates available now and there is a strong belief in the private sector that the investment fundamentals remain sound."

Joseph Dougherty, a lawyer in West Chester, Pa., is one investor bullish on the county's waterfront development.

Dougherty and a partner from Havre de Grace have purchased a Dundalk marina, Lynch Cove on Bear Creek. Dougherty alone is negotiating to buy a second, the venerable Long Beach Marina on Frog Mortar Creek, one of the few docking facilities with a large swimming pool. It has been owned by Jack Evering since the 1960s.

"We see a great future in Baltimore County," said Dougherty, who would not discuss details of the marina deals.

Neither would Evering, the owner of Long Beach. But Evering did say he was fed up with owning a business that still lacks public water and sewerage.

"My place was for sale when I bought it. I tried for years to help get water and sewerage down Bowleys Quarters, but some people are happy in their tarpaper shacks and outdoor toilets. We still don't have water," Evering snapped. "That's why for the last 30 years I've went to Fort Lauderdale in the winter."

New possibilities

Other marinas for sale are Anchor Bay Marina on Hopkins Creek and Edwards boat yard on Frog Mortar, Jones said. The asking price for Anchor Bay Marina, near the popular waterfront restaurant-marina Riverwatch, is about $1.2 million, officials say. The Edwards yard has been on the market for several years.

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