More than 100 people turned out last night at an Essex school cafeteria to cautiously endorse a waterfront destination development concept at the headwaters of the Middle River.
While voicing environmental concerns, most in the crowd of residents and business people felt that the waterfront village project could heighten the area's image and bring much-needed tourist dollars.
But Robert L. Hannon, head of Baltimore County's economic development initiative, told the crowd that the waterfront project is one piece of a larger goal to bring new housing, jobs and a higher quality of life to an aging community.
"We have come to the end of the beginning," Hannon said to the crowd at Middlesex Elementary School. "We need to spring back to the days of community and attract new families and visitors with a rising image of Middle River."
One person in the audience, Kathy Kiselewich, voiced concerns about increased boat traffic and more tourists.
"The river can't live through this ... too many boats, too much pollution," she said. "How do you reconcile all this economic development if a river dies?"
But Hannon and other officials tried to ease the crowd's concerns by saying the revitalization project would have minimal effects on the environment.
The project's 20-acre site is owned by the operators of three private marinas - Cutter, Riley's and Buedel's. They are talking to county officials about the project's development.
County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger wants to improve the quality of life on the county's east side, where several aging and crime-ridden communities are situated. He also wants to make better use of the county's 175-mile-long shoreline.
"It will be for families and boaters a field of dreams; we build, and they will come," Ruppersberger said yesterday. "It's not a mini-Harborplace idea, but it could attract boaters from all over the Chesapeake Bay. Water attracts people."
Part of his motivation, he said, is the success of waterfront towns such as Havre de Grace and Rock Hall.
The waterfront destination is part of the east-side revitalization efforts. The Ruppersberger administration has spent more than $800 million on improvements, ranging from new surfaces in alleys to schools and a new highway, officials said.
The highway, a $60 million extension of Route 43 from White Marsh to Eastern Boulevard near Martin State Airport, is expected to be completed in 2005. It will open to development 700 acres of property zoned for industrial use, creating an estimated 10,000 jobs.
Other components of the revitalization efforts include the WaterView single-family housing project, demolition of the World War II-era Villages of Tall Trees apartments for a 50-acre park and a $5 million streetscape project on Eastern Boulevard.
At last night's meeting, community members applauded Jack Dillon, a retired county planner who in 1993 envisioned a waterfront village in eastern Baltimore County.
"I'd like to congratulate the community," said Dillon, who works in the private sector. "Everyone has built a synergy. They started a change, they've recognized their problems and are working to solve them."