Waiting for Middle River windfall


Patti and Roger Zajdel remember that morning two summers ago on the banks of Middle River as if it were yesterday.

That's when Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, flush with pride over the official unveiling of his waterfront destination plan, draped his arms over their shoulders and told them they could be millionaires one day.

They're still waiting.

"We haven't heard a word from him, or the county, since," said Patti Zajdel, co-owner with her husband of the Commodore Inn and social hall, a faded but beloved east-side watering hole that would be refurbished or torn down as part of Ruppersberger's ambitious east-side revitalization plan.

One sentimental piece of the Commodore is the faded art deco social hall that was a commercial movie theater in the 1940s. For a combined 70 years, the hall played host to wedding receptions, fishing clubs and political groups.

The Commodore occupies a strategic position at 1909 Old Eastern Ave. The site is at the entrance to what county officials hope will become a trendy, 20-acre waterfront destination on Middle River.

The east-side revitalization would also include hundreds of new single-family homes, streetscape improvements on Eastern Boulevard and a $60 million extension of Route 43.

But property owners awaiting a financial windfall from the revitalization could be tripping over semantics and are confused about the county's role, officials say.

"Whatever happens with the waterfront destination will be initiated by the private sector," said Fronda J. Cohen, spokeswoman for the Department of Economic Development. "The county's role is to serve as a broker, a catalyst, to bring various parties together."

Cohen said the county spent tax dollars on public domain tracts such as the 50-acre Villages of Tall Trees, the World War II-era apartment complex that will become a county park. More than $12 million will be spent acquiring 105 buildings there. Twenty-five of the buildings remain in private hands.

"We have had very, very preliminary inquiries from developers on the waterfront destination location since we unveiled the designer's concept" on Jan. 10, Cohen said. "If the market is right, if we can engage the right people, we can act as a facilitator to help making something happen."

She could not estimate when redevelopment might begin.

After more than four decades of investing sweat equity in the old Commodore, the Zajdels say they want a piece of the redevelopment benefits. The property has been in Roger Zajdel's family since 1956, and the building holds historical significance for a community facing upheaval.

The building that houses the bar and hall was built in 1915. Old east-side hands say a fellow looking to quench his thirst during Prohibition could grab a bottle of grog where the Commodore now stands. During World War II, scores of defense workers from the nearby Glenn L. Martin plants packed the bar.

And post-World War II kids caught movies such as the 1950 film Broken Arrow there when the hall was known as the Midway Theater, which stayed open only a few years.

Today, a dingy marquee hangs over the hall's entrance and the worn ticket booth stands in stark contrast to better days.

"A lot of the parents would bring their kids to the movies at Midway and then go to the bar and drink," remembered Kenneth Crum, a retired maintenance supervisor at Johns Hopkins Hospital who lives in nearby Hawthorne. "Me, I went there for the girls, always crowded on Saturday."

In recent years, the hall also served as the forward command post for organizers of the movement against Senate Bill 509, legislation proposed by Ruppersberger that would have expanded the county's condemnation powers. The bill was rejected in a countywide referendum in 2000.

The Zajdels would like county help in the form of a buyout or financial assistance for a facelift for the Commodore bar and hall.

Roger Zajdel, who on Jan. 18 registered as a candidate for the House of Delegates in the 6th District, said retaining the Commodore in some form should be important to county leaders.

"History is yours; it's sort of sacred," he said. "People should be more attuned to that."

Most east-siders, including the Zajdels, welcome the reinvention of their communities, sections of which had become distressed. But they remain suspicious of government programs and see the revitalization as benefiting a few developers and powerful political cronies.

Anna Mueller owns Buedel's Marina, one of three marinas where the waterfront destination would be situated. The other two marinas are Cutter and Riley's.

Mueller, too, senses that the county has distanced itself from the owners of smaller properties in the revitalization zone.

"Publicly, the county has made much of this waterfront site, but privately I have not heard one word, had one offer from anyone in the county administration, from Dutch Ruppersberger on down. It gives one pause as to what they really want to do because at my age, I don't need to be assuming a new mortgage."

The 12 acres owned by Mueller were purchased in 1910 by her grandparents, she said, and the site played different roles since then. Originally, the location was known as Buedel's Park and featured picnic groves, a small amusement park, two indoor bowling lanes and a shooting gallery.

The marina was built in the 1960s and did a thriving business until pockets of Middle River and Essex started declining.

"The county can afford to wait," Mueller said. "They know at my age I'm not going to go into a long-term mortgage by refinancing and redeveloping the property. It's the same story at the Commodore. At this point, it's just a waiting game, one the county can afford to play."

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