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Eager to launch east-side renewal


In those intoxicating days of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, Robert Palmer helped put a man on the moon.

"Yes, I was one among the cast of thousands," he says, laughing.

Now, more than three decades later, he'll be happy to simply put more boats in Middle River.

Palmer, who could be mistaken for a university professor with his wiry frame and tufts of gray hair, is owner of Tradewinds Marina in Bowleys Quarters and former head of the Marine Trades Association. He has fought for a decade to create a waterfront destination on Baltimore County's east side that would inject tourist dollars into the area.

"Now I have something I can really sink my teeth into," Palmer says, referring to the Essex-Middle River revitalization plan, which calls for sprucing up a cluster of marinas on Middle River, building more single-family houses and creating a destination point, or points, where landlubbers and boaters could play and spend.

Palmer and his fellow marina owners have long felt ignored, distanced from the center of power in Towson although the 80-odd members of the association account for more than $130 million worth of annual marine-related business in the county.

"And that's not counting the sale of boats," he says. "If the economic development people include the sale of boats, that figure would go through the roof."

In 1991, officials were promoting their version of tourism in Baltimore County. They listed the horse country and area wineries. "Can you imagine, we have 173 miles of shoreline, one of our greatest assets, and they didn't even mention the water?" Palmer says.

Palmer, 64, the father of five grown children, is an exacting man, one not given to excess but one who can certainly dream. He's extremely impatient with bureaucratic procrastinators, "the ones who say, 'Sure, we can do it,' and then list a string of excuses why a project can't be accomplished. That drives me crazy."

Working for then-County Executive Roger B. Hayden, a Republican, Palmer served on a task force that developed a waterfront strategy for the county's 2010 master plan.

That strategy called for treating the county's rivers and the Chesapeake Bay with due reverence while making them sources of economic opportunity.

Palmer says County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger's east-side revitalization plan is reasonable and exciting. It will, he said, survive a protest from some residents based on the threat of condemnation in the law that outlines the plan, still referred to as Senate Bill 509 in Essex and Middle River. The measure will be challenged in a November referendum.

From his vantage point on Frog Mortar Creek, the retired engineer has a vision that extends beyond one riverfront restaurant.

He can see a fleet of water taxis carrying tourists from sun-splashed restaurants to nature parks and historic points like Todd's Inheritance, a house on a quiet cove in North Point that played a key role in the War of 1812.

And judging from the success of facilities like Mears Great Oak Landing in Chestertown, Kent County, Palmer thinks Baltimore County's Rocky Point Park, with its 18-hole golf course, would be perfect with a few piers. "A group could go for a boat ride and then play some golf," Palmer says.

On another portion of the east-side shoreline, the on-again, off-again discussions between county development officials and Middle River Aircraft Systems are on again regarding parcels on Dark Head Cove. There, not far from the future terminus of White Marsh Boulevard, some planners see a potential launch point for the water taxis.

And many who make their living along the water see potential on Miller Island, where top Bethlehem Steel executives once resided in a string of bayfront bungalows and where others enjoyed the privacy of little shore shacks. Today, the island remains a clannish and proud village of blue-collar homeowners and retired professionals like Ted Patterson, a physician, and his wife, Sylvia, who own an elegant contemporary home on the bay.

"We've not heard much talk about development down here," says Patterson.

When the debate over SB 509 fades, most expect the revitalization to continue full speed ahead.

"The entire concept across the east side could mean a severe change is coming," says Palmer. "Any kind of successful implementation will meet some resistance, but that isn't so bad."

Palmer was born in Algona, Iowa, a small farm town he describes as middle class. In 1958, he earned a degree in mechanical engineering at Iowa State University and worked on aircraft designs for Boeing.

In 1961, Palmer was inspired by President John F. Kennedy, who challenged the nation to put a man on the moon before the decade ended.

Palmer, helping design the first rocket stage, began work in the Apollo manned lunar landing program in Huntsville, Ala., and New Orleans, where he met a technical dreamer who would greatly influence him.

Wernher von Braun, the rocket genius who was smuggled out of Nazi Germany before the end of World War II, "was incredible. We'd go in and brief him on various segments of the project and he could stand up afterwards and condense everything into 10 minutes. And he wouldn't miss a lick, a great mind.

"It was 100 hours a week sometimes, but not one soul complained. We all were on adrenaline because it was so exciting and challenging," Palmer says.

In July 1969 two American astronauts took a walk on the lunar surface and Palmer rejoiced at "being in the right place at the right time."

He later earned a master's degree in business administration from Loyola University of New Orleans and moved to Washington, D.C., where he did consulting work on the F-14 fighter aircraft and the Apache helicopter.

He and his family came to Bowleys Quarters in 1983 and purchased the 2.6-acre marina. It's been fun having the freedom of working the waterfront, he says, and illuminating being on the fringes of county government, watching it work, or sometimes stall.

"Dutch has done a lot more to pump new life into the east side," Palmer says. "Some was initiated before, when he was on the County Council. But he's definitely embraced the idea and carried it forward."

Now, Palmer says, "it's time to make it happen."

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