Officials try to hold the fort

Park: Baltimore and Anne Arundel County are negotiating to share the high cost to fix the dilapidated Fort Smallwood.

August 12, 2002|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

At Fort Smallwood Park in Pasadena, morning traffic includes iridescent dragonflies and hungry fishermen eager for a lunchtime catch. The park's rocky shoreline, which the fishermen dominate, juts out into the Patapsco River like a bony chin.

That postcard vision of the park, which is in Anne Arundel County but owned by Baltimore City, fades quickly, however, when a visitor investigates further. The restrooms are locked tight, the drinking fountains are old and broken, and the fishing pier is a mess of rusted nails, wobbly planks and dangerous gaps.

"We used to have swimming and camping and bathrooms that worked," said Gilles Boisvert, who has managed the park for the city since 1981. "Now you have no swimming and no camping and no bathrooms and buildings that should be torn down. It gives us a bad name."

Fort Smallwood's image as forgotten stepchild could be wiped away for good, however, if Baltimore and Anne Arundel officials can agree to work together to clean up its 100 acres of wooded grasslands and beaches.

Major renovation of the park, which the city bought from the federal government in 1929, could cost several million dollars - an amount most officials agree would be better shouldered by two jurisdictions than by one.

"We are trying to work out a partnership and they seem to be very receptive to it," said Anne Arundel County Council member Shirley Murphy, a Pasadena Democrat who attended a recent meeting with Baltimore officials to discuss the park's future. "We are all very excited about it."

Murphy, like others, is well-versed in Fort Smallwood's hard-knock tale. Although it was once a mecca of verdant and waterfront pleasures, the park has had its share of trouble. In 1999, city officials nearly shuttered the park for a lack of funds. More recently, local residents have tried to stop the Maryland Port Administration from erecting a dredge island near the park.

Decay is evident everywhere. At the center of the park, an old caretaker's house sits behind a screen of volunteer saplings. Run-down concession stands rot in the sun, the roof on one nearly sagging to the ground.

A fortress built by the government in 1896 to protect Baltimore's harbor is also in dire need of repair. Surrounded by fencing and covered with "No Trespassing" signs, the fort is off limits to anyone who might want to explore its history.

The long, slow decline of Fort Smallwood Park, coupled with complaints from neighbors who didn't want to see the site and its unfiltered view of the Key Bridge ruined, has resulted in several attempts by Anne Arundel County to purchase the site, but Baltimore officials have refused to sell each time.

"We offered a dollar for it because we would have to close it down for a year at least to renovate it and bring it up to our standards," Dennis Callahan, the county's recreation and parks director, said of an offer Anne Arundel made several years ago when Kurt L. Schmoke was Baltimore mayor. "It would have cost $2 million to fix it up."

The county made another stab at a purchase about two months ago, said Laura Jones, a Pasadena resident and community liaison for state Del. Joan Cadden, who is heading up the Fort Smallwood Park renovation effort. Then-Baltimore Recreation and Parks Director Marvin F. Billups Jr. turned down the offer, but agreed to work with the county to fix up the park, said Jones.

Mayor Martin O'Malley fired Billups in June, stating that he wasn't moving fast enough to overhaul the city's extensive parks network. Billups' replacement, Kimberley M. Amprey, has promised to pick up where he left off, and keep his promise to the county to upgrade Fort Smallwood.

"We are optimistic and looking forward to working with Anne Arundel County for the improvement of Fort Smallwood," said Annette Stenhouse, a spokeswoman for Amprey, who was unavailable for comment Friday.

Amprey is scheduled to meet with county officials at the park this week, the spokeswoman said.

An O'Malley spokesman said the mayor was committed to cleaning up all 19 city-owned parks, including Fort Smallwood and the Robert E. Lee Park in Baltimore County.

"Any green space that comes under the purview of the city of Baltimore can look to see some sort of improvement," said Tony White, O'Malley's spokesman.

Baltimore's 2003 budget includes $650,000 to fix Fort Smallwood's sewer system, which Boisvert said is riddled with tree roots. The sewer system, which is self-contained to the park, had to be shut down several years ago, he said.

Boisvert, who charges a $4 entrance fee per vehicle, said he hasn't been able to raise enough money to fix the sewer system and that he gets no city money to subsidize his operating budget of about $53,000 a year.

Boisvert, who runs the Inner Harbor ice rink and the concessions stand and skate shop at the Patterson Park ice rink for the city's Recreation and Parks Department, said all the money he earns at Fort Smallwood goes back into the park.

Boisvert's daughter Carol McLaughlin, who lives nearby in Arundel, works the park's front gate most mornings. As part of her daily routine, she hauls in gallon jugs of water to feed the marigolds she bought and planted at the front gate. With no running water at the park, the flowers would die otherwise.

But Boisvert remains optimistic about the park's future.

"What can I say," he said, "I am always hopeful."

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