Island sees sign of change

Future: Thirteen acres of waterfront property is up for sale, and folks in the Eastern Shore town of Wenona wonder what comes next.

October 07, 2004|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

WENONA - In rural Somerset County, long the poorest in Maryland, it seems that hardly any corner is too isolated these days to become the next big investment bargain.

Still, here on Deal Island, more than 150 miles from Baltimore and 60 miles off the beaten track from Ocean City, the watermen and charter boat captains who hang out at Arby's general store are shaking their heads.

The 13-acre marina property where they have docked their boats for years bears a $6 million price tag, and they wonder what comes next.

"I grew up here, and nobody ever heard of a condo, much less thought we'd get something like that," says Arby Holland, 54, who runs the general store with his wife. "I thought prices down here were skyrocketing 10 years ago. Now they're shooting to the moon."

No one is arguing with that assessment, not the way real estate is moving just across Tangier Sound in Crisfield. At last count, officials in the town of 2,700 had approved plans for 420 condominiums and other expensive units on waterfront sites where seafood packing houses and other maritime commercial operations used to thrive.

The Webster family hopes that its marina property will draw similar interest. It includes 600 feet of waterfront, docks and slips for 10 work boats, and three rough-hewn watermen's shanties.

Richard "Dickie" Webster, a 63-year-old charter boat captain who also owns one of the state's remaining skipjacks, is one of six heirs. Webster says the property has been in the family for about 30 years. He's not particularly sentimental about the possible sale.

"I think you'll see the same thing here as you have up in Rock Hall, a watermen's community that's now all pleasure sailboats and big marinas," he says. "I'm next-to-the-youngest in our family. At this point, if it sells, I can just go play golf."

Joe Schneider, the commercial real estate agent who is handling the property, acknowledges that the $6 million asking price has raised eyebrows but says a development company from Florida has flown in to take a look. No one has made an offer, let alone spelled out the possibilities for condominiums or anything else.

"Obviously, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and any property is only worth what someone will pay for it," Schneider says.

"Wenona is just starting to get its wings. Any developer has to take into account that it has its own flavor," he says. "It's no Crisfield or any place else, but this is an attempt to make something out of prime waterfront."

Making new use of old land is critical to the county's economic future, Somerset officials say.

With a decades-long slide in the seafood industry, the county's unemployment rate is 6.8 percent and the per capita income of $19,594 is the lowest in the state, $7,000 a year less than in Baltimore.

Government and business leaders also have been working to bring a ferry service to Crisfield that would take riders across the bay to Reedville, Va. And there have been rumors that a big amusement water park outfit has shown interest in Somerset.

But, like their counterparts across the Eastern Shore, county officials see continued residential development for baby boom retirees as the best fuel for an improving economy.

"There's certainly interest in places like Wenona and the rest of Deal Island," says Danny Thompson, the county's economic development director.

The magic word is waterfront, says Bonita Porter, a real estate agent for 27 years in Somerset. Even in the rural county, there's only so much to go around; prices have climbed higher than anyone would have thought possible a few years ago.

One property comparable to the Websters', Porter says, is a 2.63-acre marina in the tiny community of Rumbley, just across the Manokin River from Wenona. With showers, restrooms and 72 deep-water slips, it sold 18 months ago for what now looks like a bargain price of $650,000.

The Webster property's price tag "is really way out there, but who knows," Porter says

In Wenona, literally the end of the road, Arby Holland and his wife, Debbie, continue serving up a conglomeration of snacks, smokes and sodas in their modest store, along with blood worms, wading boots and the thick rubber gloves favored by watermen.

The island, nearly surrounded by the 13,000-acre Deal Island Wildlife Management Area, is connected to the rest of Somerset by a bridge, but some delivery drivers refuse to make the 38-mile round trip to the county seat, Princess Anne.

"All of us have to drive 19 miles up and 19 miles back if we want a pizza or takeout Chinese," says Debbie Holland, 49. "If people want to come down here, they better get used to that kind of drive. It's still a watermen's town, but we're waiting to see what happens."

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