Marina lease sparks outcry in Crisfield

Some question ties among company, state, city officials

November 19, 2005|By DAVID NITKIN | DAVID NITKIN,SUN REPORTER

CRISFIELD -- With developers hungry for land in this once-faded fishing village, Maryland and city officials are preparing to turn publicly owned waterfront properties over to private investors in transactions that trouble many residents and businessmen.

The state is working on a plan to lease Somers Cove Marina, a 486-slip marina considered an affordable treasure by boat owners here, to a private operator. The selected firm would gain the right to build stores, restaurants and other amenities on 60 open acres.

Public outcry delayed the privatization proposal after it was unveiled earlier this year. Officials now say that they will wait until a city revitalization plan is completed before proceeding.

Yesterday, the Crisfield City Council voted to allow a recently formed corporation to do the study. It also approved the same company's plans to lease waterfront land owned by the city on the southern edge of the marina. A motel now occupies the 2-acre property.

The company - Crisfield Associates LLC - has positioned itself to play a leading role in the planning and redevelopment of the marina, the city and its environs, drawing criticism from competitors and local residents who say the firm appears to be receiving favored treatment.

One founder of Crisfield Associates is Charles A. McClenahan, a former Crisfield mayor who was a Republican member of the General Assembly at the same time as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

The leader of the venture is Joseph J. Corrado Sr., the CEO of Delaware-based Corrado-American, which did the excavation and site work at Dover Downs slots casino and hotel.

Earlier this year, Crisfield Associates entered a no-bid partnership with the city. A few months later, the company said in draft legal documents that it wanted to become "exclusive preferred partner, adviser and master developer" for all city-controlled property, in exchange for underwriting a $500,000-plus revitalization study. The company said in the documents that it hopes that land would include the marina.

The final wording of the agreement for the study - to take about eight months - is still being negotiated, the Crisfield city attorney said yesterday.

For many residents in this city of close to 3,000 where million-dollar condominiums are being built, the situation raises fresh questions about the scope of a broader Ehrlich administration strategy to dispose of public assets such as land near or in state parks.

At issue, they say, is whether the government's efforts to streamline operations and raise cash are of benefit to all state residents, or just a select few.

Other developers and local residents say they are wary of the web of relationships between the company, city and state officials, and question how and why the company gained preferred status.

"It seems to be a fait accompli process," said James W. Shaw, a partner in Shaw Development LLC, which is building condominiums here and which submitted a competing proposal to help Crisfield with its planning process - even though the city never asked for it. "I think the process ought to be more open and formalized. Small towns can do that as well as big towns."

Added Shaw's partner, James Gay: "The big question is, why was everything was done under the cloak of darkness and not in the light of day?"

Philip Goldsborough, a co-owner of a Crisfield marine shop and a leader in an effort to stop privatization of the marina, calls the relationships "a conflict that wasn't good for Marylanders."

For much of the past year, two deals - the city's pact with Crisfield Associates and the state's plan to lease the marina to a private company - proceeded along parallel paths.

Those paths sometimes intersected, through the efforts and connections of McClenahan, who has been involved in discussions about the marina for decades.

McClenahan said Corrado contacted him in spring 2004, asking him to join a development team. The Delaware contracting company owner was eyeing this Eastern Shore city long considered too remote for investment.

"He was looking for areas that had waterfront. He thought this was one area he wanted to do something," McClenahan said.

Several weeks after being contacted by Corrado, McClenahan saw an old friend, C. Ronald Franks, at a golf political fundraiser in St. Mary's County. Franks is a former Eastern Shore delegate and dentist who in the Ehrlich administration heads the Department of Natural Resources, which runs the marina.

"Ron Franks was my dentist during the time I was in the Assembly," McClenahan said. "We talked about the marina and what needed to be done."

At the golf event, Franks told him the agency was moving ahead with plans to lease the marina. He invited McClenahan to a community meeting to discuss the proposal.

After that meeting and several others in subsequent months, community outcry over privatization swelled to a fever pitch.

Goldsborough, the marine shop owner, and others say the marina is the heart of this community and should remain public.

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