CRISFIELD - John K. Phoebus knows it's hard to imagine the bustle that once was the Mrs. Paul's seafood plant. Fifteen years after the sprawling operation that had employed 350 was shut down, it is a crumbling eyesore.
But squint a little, says the 31-year-old hometown lawyer whose shingle hangs a block from this dilapidated waterfront, and you'll see potential.
Over here is a hotel and conference center. Over there a new restaurant, maybe 200 pricey condominiums and townhouses. There goes a water taxi hauling tourists around a sparkling harbor that has more in common with tourist spots such as St. Michaels than the working docks that made Crisfield the "Seafood Capital of Maryland."
"There's a sense of hopefulness in Crisfield that has not been here, at least not in my lifetime," says Phoebus, scion of a politically connected Republican clan. "It's a little intangible until you erase that building and a lot of the other old buildings and see what we have."
Battered by decades of decline in the seafood industry, people here say a proposed Chesapeake Bay ferry service to Reedville, Va. - a project supporters say would boost tourism as well as the Eastern Shore's trucking and poultry industries - is sparking a surge in real estate speculation, renovation and optimism. It would be the first such service on the bay in about 40 years and one that could drastically change Crisfield's future.
This down-on-its-luck town in Somerset County, where median family income is about $23,000 a year, is flirting with investors and others looking for an alternative to retirement, vacation and second-home destinations farther north on the Eastern Shore. Phoebus, for one, is negotiating for clients who want to sell or develop nearly $5.5 million worth of waterfront properties within walking distance of his modest office.
"Certainly, the prospect of a ferry has put Crisfield on the map, but it's broader than that," he says. "I think the stars are all just aligned for us right now."
Now that the governor has signed authorizing legislation, ferry proponents - the nonprofit Fast Ferry Coalition and city and Somerset County officials - expect to have a feasibility study completed before the end of the year. It will evaluate whether a ferry could be profitable, how best to finance it, where to build a landing site and what additional roads and infrastructure would be required to handle trucks and cars making the trip aboard 270-foot vessels.
"Right now, I think it's about a 90 percent `go' on the ferry," says C. Frederick Lankford, who heads Lankford-SYSCO Food Services Inc., a food distribution company that probably would be one of the ferry's largest clients. "But we're not looking to get egg on our face. We don't want to get it going and have it fail in a couple years."
Looking for deals
Meanwhile, developers and investors are scouring the town for deals, eyeing a handful of waterfront sites that once housed more than 80 oyster-shucking and crab-picking plants, taking a closer look at a largely vacant downtown business district and fixing up spacious Victorian homes that long ago were cut into apartments.
James E. Dodson, a former Baltimore police detective, has owned the Captain's Galley Restaurant, which sits on a prime spot next to the Depot, the city's main commercial dock, since 1976.
Now he is moving ahead with plans to add 16 condominium units on a sliver of waterfront overlooking Somers Cove, a 400-slip marina run by the state Department of Natural Resources. He's pricing them at $350,000 each.
"Everybody who ever comes down here says we're a sleeping giant," Dodson says. "No matter where you go, waterfront is being redeveloped. I've already got people asking about these condos. I tell them the price, and that doesn't seem to scare anybody."
With 2,880 residents, Crisfield has its limitations. There isn't much in the way of services or business support. The only way to get a copy made if you don't own a machine is to slug a few quarters in the copier at the post office. The Food Lion national supermarket chain is investigating locating a store here, which would be the town's only supermarket.
Still, prime properties are being marketed to potential buyers in Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia and other places on real estate Web sites.
`Diamond in the rough'
George Calamaras, a native of upstate New York who has developed property in his home state, Florida and North Carolina, settled in Crisfield last year and has renovated a Dutch Colonial home about a mile from the waterfront, in an area first developed by wealthy seafood plant owners. He has also bought a building in the city's largely abandoned downtown business district.
"I went up and down the East Coast and didn't find a place where price-to-value was any better than Crisfield," Calamaras said. "This is a diamond in the rough. I'm hoping the town turns into another Easton."
Enthusiasm and strong local support are essential to a turnaround, but even with ferry service in place by the target date of 2005, Salisbury University economist Memo Diriker urges caution.
Like Cambridge, where the new Hyatt Chesapeake is spurring downtown redevelopment, Crisfield's comeback might best be looked at as a long haul rather than a short-term miracle, he says.
"The demographic trends are inescapable - there are growing numbers of people looking to retire early to an active lifestyle in places like Crisfield," Diriker says. "I don't know if its time has come or whether it's around the corner in another five or 10 years. For anybody who can gamble, Crisfield might be a good place to put some chips."