Crisfield at a crossroads

June 27, 2006

Few places on the Chesapeake Bay reflect the economic uncertainties of the commercial seafood industry as much as the quaggy little Eastern Shore town of Crisfield. Once the second-largest city in Maryland, Crisfield grew rich on shellfish. During its oyster heyday, the town literally expanded out into Tangier Sound on the tons of shells discarded by the packinghouses. But when the industry began petering out four decades ago, the town that still wistfully calls itself "the crab capital of the world" seemed to sink deep into the marshes that nearly surround it. Faced with years of plant closings, foreclosures and a stagnant job picture, fewer than 3,000 people now live in the town.

But there's a new commodity in Crisfield these days. In the last year alone, developers launched seven major construction projects designed to put hundreds of expensive townhouses and condos on the market, most of them towering above the waterfront where watermen once unloaded the day's catch. It's almost gotten to the point where you have to pay to see the sunset in Crisfield. Is this progress for the last of the rough-and-tumble watermen's towns still on the bay? Even with its faults - yes, the wharf area can be pungent at oyster-shucking time - Crisfield is a treasure. Turning it into another fancy port for sailors and other wealthy interlopers seems a shame.

There's still more valuable property in Crisfield, including 250 acres of land owned by the town itself. And there's the state-owned Somers Cove Marina, one of the largest and most protected marinas on the bay. The state has indicated that it may be willing to turn over the facility to the town.

What happens to these properties and who should benefit were questions voters last week answered in part when they ousted the longtime mayor and two City Council members. Their seats will be taken by candidates who campaigned against a perceived sweetheart deal between the town and Crisfield Associates LLC, an advisory group formed specifically to help develop the town property in return for a share of the profits.

The problem with Crisfield Associates may have been that its key members are from out of town - not exactly a badge of honor in Crisfield, where the clannish residents can be justifiably suspicious of outsiders' intentions. The problem may have been that when the current council members awarded Crisfield Associates a no-bid contract, it looked like they were turning over the town's future to a select group with little input from the taxpayers.

If they keep their campaign pledges - as they should - Crisfield's new mayor and council will back out of the deal with Crisfield Associates. The next step is to look for another group to help with the development. But this time, take it slowly. Give citizens plenty of time to participate. And don't make the next deal with the first carpetbagger to roll into town.

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