Marina project is key to tourism

Marina: Restoration of a waterfront park is a key phase of a plan to celebrate the river town's history and spur regional tourism.

April 06, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Jeannette Hillyer used to go with her young family down the hill to Port Deposit's waterfront, where they would put in a little boat on the Susquehanna River, next to the Navy's bustling marina and jetty.

You couldn't miss the activity next door in those post-World War II boom days, said the 80-year-old Cecil County native, who lives just outside Port Deposit, a town of about 700 people tucked along the riverbank. Sailors from Bainbridge Naval Station filled the jetty, waiting to clamber into one of the 108 whaleboats docked there so they could practice maneuvers up and down the river.

"It was a busy place," she said, smiling as she recounted the scene of the young men learning how to crew the wooden craft, which were used as lifeboats on large naval vessels.

But in the 1970s, the Navy left its station at Bainbridge, on the hill overlooking Port Deposit, and the sailors left the waterfront. The once-busy marina, where Hillyer's son took rowing lessons, fell into disrepair, and though a few park amenities dot the shore today, the 2-acre stretch of land is rather forlorn.

But not for long. Construction is set to begin this summer on a $1.3 million Marina Park restoration meant to turn this spare stretch of prime waterfront into a community park that pays homage to the town's naval ties and creates a foothold for the town's future in a heritage tourism corridor envisioned to link Port Deposit, Perryville, Havre de Grace and Susquehanna State Park.

The park will have an outdoor concert area, waterfront bike and pedestrian trail, and a gazebo. The restored jetty will also become a site for bikers and hikers to cross the Susquehanna at one of the few points on the East Coast that offer no safe alternative for foot and bike traffic.

The crossing will enable the Harford-Cecil corridor to be linked in the larger East Coast Greenway, a system of trails being constructed along a 2,600-mile route from Maine to Key West, Fla.

Mary Ann Lisanti, executive director of the Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenway, the umbrella group that is overseeing the heritage tourism corridor, described the park as a "jewel in the crown."

"It's a hallmark project that is the first step to implementing a long-awaited river crossing between Harford and Cecil County," Lisanti said, adding that Perryville has selected historic Rodgers Tavern as its taxi stop and Havre de Grace is in the site selection process.

The park plan has been incubating since the late 1990s and owes much of its success to a band of local officials and activists, including Hillyer, who want to rejuvenate the waterfront of this aging industrial town best known for its granite and the Fort McHenry tunnel tube, which was built downtown.

"Restoration of the park is a key event," said Harold V. Harbold II, a developer who owns several buildings in town and chairs the greenway's Port Deposit work group.

Bill Eldred, Port Deposit's community development director, includes Marina Park among projects he ticks off as "atoms in the molecule of riverfront improvement."

"Perpetuation," interjected Harbold one recent morning as the two discussed the project. "One action should support every other action."

Harbold, a retired state police officer who lives in Forest Hill, said the park plan "suffers from `tortism' - you know, as in tortoise and hare - but we will finish this race."

At the northern end of the park, with a separate grant, the historic gas house that town father Jacob Tome used in the late 1800s to capture gas to illuminate street lamps and houses is also under restoration. When completed, the house will serve as the greenway visitors center.

Mayor Wayne Tome, Tome's fifth-generation nephew, said the old gas house will accent the park stretch nicely and boost an area that had fallen on hard times after the Navy's departure. For years, a private company owned the shorefront property and parked barges there, attracting vermin and creating problems for town police.

But after the state and greenway teamed up with grant money to help the town buy the property, Tome said, "everything's kind of coming together, and it's refreshing."

Eldred, the community development director, lives in Brooklyn and commutes to Port Deposit each week. He said the state Department of Natural Resources has been a large partner in funding the project. "Once we get the ferry service going," he said, "we will be able to draw people who are at festivals in Havre de Grace.

"I could see Port Deposit becoming a restaurant center," he added.

For now, Hillyer said, the park will be a first step to bringing hikers, bikers and horseback riders to town, so people can see their "very unique town and very unique people." She especially likes the plan to use Port Deposit granite on the park gazebo's foundation, and keeping some of the original boat-hoisting equipment on the jetty.

"It's beautiful," she said. "Anything that can revive history, I am for."

For information about the Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenway projects and its river crossing study, 410- 457-2482.

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