Despite the successes of Baltimore County's ambitious revitalization program in Middle River and Essex, people there are puzzled at the lack of progress on its centerpiece, a multimillion-dollar waterfront destination.
With two major housing developments under construction, WaterView and Hopewell Pointe, and a $5 million streetscape near completion, the collection of restaurants, shops and a marina at the headwaters of the Middle River has yet to materialize.
Some are critical of the lack of progress on the waterfront destination. Others are scratching their heads, including the owners of the three marinas where it is to be built.
"With everything positive that's progressing on the east side, it just seems like the county has passed this piece of land by," said Roger Ziejdel, proprietor of the Commodore Inn and Hall. "When it was taking shape, people really got excited about an attraction that would be like a mini-Harborplace. Now we're all just scratching our heads."
The county has high hopes for the east side, where marinas and boatyards dot 175 miles of shoreline and spring awakens at a time-honored pace.
Anglers in weathered baseball caps discuss the coming rockfish season. Osprey perch on channel markers searching for nesting material. And formations of Canada geese are etched against a full moon, honking along their northern routes.
Eight years ago, Baltimore County officials envisioned a new generation of families moving back to the east side -- drawn by the Chesapeake Bay and its historic rivers and creeks. All they needed were places to live.
That seems to be working so far, with the two housing developments under construction. As for the waterfront destination, county officials said they continue to meet with potential developers and that they met with one this month. They said they cannot identify the parties because of confidentiality. Nor would they say whether the parties expressed interest in purchasing the 20-acre property that includes the three marinas -- Buedel's, Cutter and Riley's.
Owners of the three marinas, however, don't seem pointed in the same direction. One is angry with the county because she said she has never had substantive talks about redevelopment. Another said she is willing to wait for the area to grow while the third has invested heavily in dock improvements.
Because of a depressed economy and the so-called "private-on-private" nature of any prospective offer between developer and property owner, "a lot of complicated pieces have to come into place," said Fronda J. Cohen of the county Office of Economic Development.
County planners said the development could attract tourists and small businesses to a riverfront village featuring a boardwalk. A plan introduced by the county a year ago said constructing the destination would cost at least $32 million.
Retail will follow
"A year in developing is a very short time," said Cohen. "Developers want to see warm bodies before they commit. Retail follows residential. Something will happen on that property, and because it hasn't does not mean there is a lack of will" on the county's part.
Still, some feel there should have been some movement by now.
Some critics blame the administration of County Executive James T. Smith Jr. who, they said, lacks the passion of his predecessor, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger. Those critics said Smith should be more aggressive in bringing developers together with the private owners.
"Right now, there is no visible movement along that part of Middle River," said state Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a 7th District Republican. "It must come back up to speed, the project needs new momentum so it can move forward again."
Even the government's staunchest critics said such projects suffer in a depressed economy.
But at least one successful local developer, Larry Rosenberg, said he has approached the county expressing his desire to develop the site of the three marinas. He said officials have shown no interest, nor have they created incentives to attract developers.
"I am willing to work with the marina owners, the county, any party to get the revitalization back into focus," said Rosenberg, managing partner of WaterView Joint Venture LLC and president of Mark Building Co. He has invested nearly $40 million in the WaterView project, a community that will have 175 single-family homes and a commercial hub anchored by a Mars supermarket.
"But there has been no energy, no creativity to make it happen," said Rosenberg. "The county should be trying to get everyone together and make it happen. I am very, very interested in doing the waterfront destination. I am very excited about the county's east side, and they know it ... but they never get back to me."
William Jones, the county's waterfront development specialist, said, "I regularly speak to the property owners, both over the phone and at Marine Trades [Association] meetings. However, to the best of my knowledge, there have been no offers to acquire their ... properties."
The lack of progress at the Middle River site has one marina owner forging ahead on his own.
Gary Rosenberger, owner of Cutter marina, said that he is investing $600,000 on dredging and new floating piers for his property.
"The concept for a waterfront destination is a good one," said Rosenberger who has owned Cutter for 20 years. "But it's still a concept. I have to move ahead and improve my business or it will just die here."
Except for a brief visit eight months ago by officials, "the county has never approached me" about any prospects, said Rosenberger.
Anna Mueller owns Buedel's marina, the most strategically located property at the development site. The property fronts the 1900 block of Old Eastern Ave. The 12-acre site has been owned by her family since the 1900s.
"The county has never asked me anything about buying my property," Mueller said.
Jeanne Riley, co-owner of Riley's, said that she is "willing to wait" for the destination to take shape. Meanwhile, she said, nearly 35 percent of her 99 boat slips remain empty. Buedel's marina also has a high vacancy rate, a worker there said.
Those on the waterfront said slip rentals at the three marinas dwindled over the past two decades because of the proximity of two crime-ridden apartment complexes. When Riverdale Apartments and the Villages of Tall Trees -- both vestiges of the east side's World War II boom days -- were demolished, the Hopewell Pointe and WaterView residential projects began in earnest.
They are moving along well. In addition to the partially completed WaterView, where new homes with an average price of $200,000 are selling briskly, the future looks equally bright for Hopewell Pointe on Hopkins Creek, a planned colony of 86 single-family homes, 128 condominiums, an upscale restaurant and a 134-slip marina.
More single-family homes and light industry are expected to flank the Route 43 extension when it opens in 2005. The roadway, which has been under construction for several years, will link White Marsh and Interstate 95 to Eastern Boulevard near Martin State Airport.
As many as 10,000 new jobs could be created then, county officials have predicted.
A waterfront destination, many have said, could compete for boating dollars with similar Chesapeake Bay destinations such as Rock Hall and Havre de Grace.
John Polek, who owns the Sunset Harbor Marina and is president of the 80-member county Marine Trades Association, said he and members of his group are "disappointed nothing has moved" forward on the destination concept.
He and other marina owners want to take Smith, the county executive, on a water tour next month to Middle River and across the bay to Rock Hall.
"The county has to get up to speed on our waterfront destination," Polek said. "We've been very patient on this, and it's important to everybody on the water and on the east side to see somebody finally make it happen."