County has high hopes for park's new makeover

After decades spent languishing, Fort Smallwood Park reopens after being turned over to Anne Arundel's care


In the black-and-white photo, a 4-year-old Henry A. Schmidt squints in the summer sunlight, surrounded by men in straw hats and women in floor-length linen dresses. His uncle's Model T is parked just out of the picture, along the banks of the Patapsco River where it winds by Fort Smallwood Park.

Yesterday, Schmidt returned to Fort Smallwood carrying the photo, 72 years after the church picnic that first brought him there, to celebrate the reopening of the 100-acre park in northeastern Anne Arundel County, which languished for decades in the hands of Baltimore officials.

After County Executive Janet S. Owens reached a deal with Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, the county took control of the park Jan. 18 under a 45-year license agreement.

The county has spent more than $1 million to paint the fort, which dates to the Spanish-American War, plant sod, install chain-link fences and add dozens of parking spaces. It also has removed lead paint, broken playground equipment and 200 dead and dying trees. Anne Arundel will handle park maintenance and security.

"It's indeed a new day," Owens said as Canada geese soared over the Patapsco.

The county executive and the mayor spoke yesterday to about 200 birdwatchers, anglers, motorcycle enthusiasts and county officials at Fort Smallwood.

Once a lush riverside park for Baltimore residents who arrived by boat, the park has been in decline for decades and has attracted drag racers and drug users in recent years.

"I would bring my girlfriends here to go parking," said Schmidt, who continued to visit the park for years to swim, barbecue and fish. But about 15 years ago, Schmidt stopped frequenting the increasingly dilapidated and dangerous park.

"I came here until the city let it go to pot," said Schmidt, a Pasadena resident.

Although the park is nine miles outside the city's borders, the Army sold the land - the site of a fort that once guarded the harbor - to Baltimore for $50,000 in 1927. The agreement stipulated that the land must remain a park and could not be sold or leased to another party.

Under the license agreement, the county will not pay rent for the park and will be able to extend the license for an additional 30 years. Park visitors will pay $5 per vehicle; alcohol, campfires and overnight camping won't be allowed.

The deal ended four decades of stalemate between the city and the county over the park, which was considered at various times for an amusement park, industrial use and a ranch for juvenile offenders.

O'Malley admitted that he had never seen the park until Owens urged him to visit.

"The park is far more central to the citizens of Anne Arundel County than the citizens of Baltimore City," O'Malley said after the ceremony.

"We had just had other priorities when it comes to the parks that our citizens use," O'Malley said, explaining why the city took so long to agree to a plan to sustain the park. He added that he jumped at Owens' proposal for the county to maintain the park.

The city has pledged to make repairs to the park, such as fixing the water treatment facilities, Owens said.

Members of the Pasadena Sportfishing Group cheered as Owens announced that Baltimore had agreed to rebuild the park's fishing pier. The pier was destroyed during Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003.

Anglers from the Pasadena group said that they had caught huge rockfish and blue fish at the Fort Smallwood but that safety concerns had kept them away in recent years.

Harry and Arlene Matthews of Harmans realized the park was in trouble a few years ago, when they drove to Fort Smallwood to find the park deserted and the gate locked.

The Matthewses recalled bringing their five children to the park to swim, fish and cook out in the mid-1960s. Then, lines of cars stretched two miles down the road from the park entrance, Harry Matthews said.

For 20 years, Michelle Giffen's family has held reunions in a wooden pavilion at Fort Smallwood each April. "Last year, it was terrible," said Giffen, of Pasadena. "There were no bathrooms - even the Port-A-Potties were disgusting. You couldn't let the children play on the beach because of broken glass."

Yesterday, Giffen's 3-year-old daughter, Breanna, dug in the clean, soft sand at the edge of the water. Across the river, the Key Bridge and the smokestacks at Sparrows Point shimmered in the warm spring air.

Although Giffen appreciates the park's new look, she wonders what will happen at this year's family reunion. The pavilion where they always met has been torn down, and the baseball diamond has been removed. Swaths of land are covered with straw and green fertilizer.

The park's makeover has not discouraged migrating birds from passing through. "Hawks have been coming by fast and furious," said Sue Ricciardi, one of a group of hawk-watchers who have frequented the park for more than 26 years. Her group had spotted more than 400 raptors by yesterday afternoon.

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