1.5 Current Situation and How We got Here

Crisfield’s current situation is another complex issue, having numerous traits that are both favorable and unfavorable.  One of the positive present conditions is the increasing awareness of Crisfield’s economic condition and the realization that something must be done.     

An example of an unfavorable trait is that many seem desperate and support moving forward on major initiatives in spite of the lack of an overall plan.  Another example are the various movements that are being conducted independently without a strategy on how these individual projects will affect the overall objective.  

In my opinion, another major aspect that is negatively impacting Crisfield’s current situation, is the lack of recognizing the tangible, and intangible, tourism assets.  These will be addressed throughout this report.

The purpose of any strategy/plan is to reach/fulfill a specific future objective, which requires to know the current position/situation.  However, what’s equally important – but often not considered – are the prior events/circumstances that have resulted/caused the current situation to come to be.  Therefore, it’s essential to understand how and why Crisfield reached its present state.  

This topic includes social, political and many other attributes, and the importance of all of these notwithstanding, I am only going to address the economic conditions that has led to Crisfield’s current situation.  Many relate the rise and fall of Crisfield to that of the Bay’s seafood industry, but historical evidence proves this was not the only cause.  

The Rise: The railroad was not extended to Somers Cove (now Crisfield), to transport oysters as commonly believed, the purpose of the railroad was to create traffic.  According to government records, and testimony given by John W. Crisfield, it was 1838 that Somers Cove was chosen as the terminus for the railroad on the Eastern Shore, and all of the land needed for the right-of-way in Somers Cove was purchased then.  

An excerpt of the 1838 Railroad Map showing Somers Cove 
as the terminus.  The tracks stopped at an isthmus called, ‘Fishing Point,’ the current location of the intersection of 9th & W. Main St. 


The primary type of traffic that was planned in the 1830’s – according to Mr. Crisfield – was not oysters, but domestic and international mail/freight.  It would take almost 30 years, one year after the Civil War, before the first train came to Crisfield – and then the traffic was cotton, lumber and other goods from the war-ravaged South.  

It was understood that this type of traffic would cease when the railroads in the South were rebuilt, so from the very beginning the Designers of Crisfield began planning to implement another type of traffic, and this is when oysters enter the story.  As it was with the Southern goods, everyone knew that Crisfield’s future couldn’t be entirely dependent on oysters.  The oyster traffic was limited to the cooler months, and, from the outset, it was common knowledge that the Bay’s oyster supply would eventually run out.  

It was well known that all of the oyster-beds in New England had been completely exhausted before the 19th century because of over-harvesting.  Point being, early Crisfielders understood that their prosperity was dependent upon traffic, and they were always looking for new types of traffic to implement.  

In the early 1870’s Crisfield found another source of traffic when they began shipping blue crabs, and according to the government records, there wasn’t an existing substantial market for crabs before Crisfield started shipping them, with the exception of a small number of soft crabs being sold which were only used for fish-bait.  This proves that the crabbing industry originated in Crisfield – now it’s Maryland’s most famous resource.

These initiatives created what I call, ‘entrepreneurial fever,’ where everybody was looking for everything, and anything, that could be put on the train (cargo=traffic) – and if there wasn’t an existing market for something, they simply created one.  

Another example of this fever is when a man moved to Crisfield, saw an abundance of terrapin turtles and nobody doing anything with them.  He experimented with a recipe for turtle-soup until he perfected it, then marketed the dish, and in short time terrapins were being served at the finest dining establishments in all the metropolitan cities.  The famous logo for the University of MD – College Park is a terrapin, which was chosen by a Crisfielder, and he did so because of the terrapin industry that started in Crisfield.  

University of MD – College Park mascot; it’s also a symbol of Crisfield’s past entrepreneurial spirit.


Crisfielders were creating a market for everything that was in abundance.  They sold sea-grass, constantly inventing new tools for the seafood industry, and for a period of time was shipping out more wildfowl than anywhere in the country.  

It was this entrepreneurial fever that made Crisfield extremely prosperous, and it was all based upon producing traffic.  They didn’t care what type of traffic it was, and again, if it didn’t have an existing market they created one.  While at certain times the oyster traffic exported from Crisfield exceeded anywhere else in America, it was the monopoly of the crabbing market that made Crisfield the ‘seafood capital of the world.’  

Incidentally, some modern accounts state that the ‘seafood capital’ was a self-appointed title, but this is false.  Crisfield had nationwide fame for being the seafood capital of the world.  I have countless sources to support this, and the one below is from a 1913 edition of the Southern Engineer, which was an annually published book that had nationwide distribution.  The book states: 

“Crisfield, Maryland, is to the crab industry what Pittsburg has been to the steel industry, and Chicago to the meat packing industry, only in a more pronounced manner than either of these two, as Crisfield’s percentage of the total business in its special industry is much higher than either of the other two cities can boast.”

This quote is impressive for multiple reasons, but something that I find especially interesting is the fact that within only four decades after the industry was created, crabs had reached a level of popularity that enabled the industry to even be mentioned alongside steel production and meat packing.  

Incidentally, I want to note where I’ve repeatedly written, ‘Designers of Crisfield.’  Some call these people founding-fathers, pioneers or another similar label.  I don’t feel that these descriptions accurately depict those people, or how Crisfield came to be.  Crisfield was not founded, or pioneered, it was planned, designed and then built, and done so for one purpose – to make money, and this was done by creating and sustaining traffic, and profiting off of this traffic.  And, all historical evidence overwhelmingly proves that their strategy was extremely successful.  This is an important lesson for us to consider moving forward.

In the mid-1850’s, a local named Capt. Michael Somers saw railroad surveyors at Fishing Point (intersection of present-day 9th & W. Main St.), and knowing the local waters, he knew that the railroad tracks would have to continue almost a 1/4 mile past Fishing Point to reach water deep enough to accommodate large maritime vessels.  

Capt. Somers informed his friend, Capt. Hance Lawson, of the situation and they discovered that no one had claimed the water-rights for this area and they filed for a riparian patent for the non-navigable waters from Fishing Point to the channel of the Little Annemessex River – an area totaling 67.5 acres.  They named their patent ‘Honesty,’ and this would become downtown Crisfield.  An interesting fact about this episode is the price they had to pay to patent Honesty; it was $1.20, Somers and Lawson paid 60 cents each.   

The Honesty Patent remained an inactive area of water for a few years, but in the mid-1860’s work on the rail line to Somers Cove was being executed at a frantic pace.  Somers and Lawson recognized the enormous importance of their water patent and brought in U.S. Congressman John W. Crisfield; first as a lawyer, then as a partner, and, these three were the first ‘designers.’  They began researching and planning on what to do with their 67.5 acres of water and how they could profit on it from the forthcoming traffic which would first be Southern goods, then transitioning to oysters.  

Crisfield’s economic rise continued for decades, sustained by the ‘entrepreneurial fever’ held within the businesses community, the town/city government and individuals – who all worked together on expanding the traffic.  

There was a committee formed called the ‘Board of Trade,’ and their primary focus was to increase commerce.  In the early 1900’s, when the oyster harvests began falling, they recognized the need to implement another type of traffic.  They researched and found there to be a need for seamstresses, so they made proposals to clothing manufactures, guaranteeing the manufactures that there would be space on the rail cars, have all the employees that they would need, and, even be supplied with a building free of cost for a period of time if they set up a sewing factory in Crisfield.  The large majority of local businesses contributed, the clothing manufacturers came and the sewing factories provided employment to many Crisfielders for over a half of a century.  This was all because of ‘entrepreneurial fever.’

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The Fall: Crisfield’s fall from prosperity is a result of multiple factors, many of which had an equal, if not greater, impact on the local economy as the decline in seafood did.  One factor was the creation of the interstate highway system after WW2 which quickly replaced the railroad as the primary method for transporting goods.  This took away the primary means to facilitate traffic, and began the slow process of seafood being taken to other ports.  

Another cause, and the one that I’ve found to be a primary one, is that beginning in the 1940’s Crisfield began losing its ‘entrepreneurial fever,’ and the level of cooperation significantly decreased between businesses and the city government, and, more importantly, they quit looking for new ways to create traffic.        

By that time great fortunes had been made and most who were in a position to create a new type of traffic were extremely wealthy and content with the status quo.  However, this attitude wasn’t shared by everyone, as shown in a 1948 article that was written by concerned businessmen and published in the Crisfield Times.  Keep in mind that Crisfield, at that time, was still the seafood capital.  Here is an excerpt of that article: 

“No business stands still.. we go forward or we go backward.. and the Seafood Industry is certainly no exception.  As of this very date, the leaders in our local industry are faced with two possible courses of action.  (1.) They will take a quick, intelligent and unbiased inventory of the situation as it now exists; they will use the facts thus established to formulate a plan of action.. long range, preferably.. whereby Crisfield’s Seafood Industry might continue to grow and expand so as to provide the maximum of gainful employment for our workers.. an industry of opportunities, if you please.  To proceed on this first and most desirable course, a sound organization and a spirit of unselfish cooperation must be developed.. neither of these, unhappily exist now.  (2.) The second course open to the industry is to sit still and do nothing and continue to operate on the assumption that “Things will work themselves out, given time.”  This attitude could, and in all probability would, prove disasterous for the local industry.  Competition from other Seafood producing areas up and down the East Coast would soon surpass us in methods of production, packing and selling, and when that happened, the sun of Crisfield’s Seafood Industry would finally set.  Not a pretty picture, but one for which the canvas is already being prepared.”

It would be hard to argue that this article was not prophetic, for the second option was taken and the sun of Crisfield’s seafood industry has set.

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Current Situation:  This doesn’t need much explanation, Crisfield is in a desperate condition.  Somerset is the poorest county in MD and practically ranks at the bottom of every economic statistic in the state.  Crisfield has long expressed interest in pursuing tourism as an economic driver, however, progress has been slow, and arguably having produced little results thus far.  

The map below is of Focus Area 1, and to my knowledge, represent the current land uses.  This information is important for it illustrates what tourists experience who currently visit Crisfield.   

Map illustrating developed land use in Focus Area 1 (August 2019)

Below is a chart that shows the percentages of what the developed land is used for.

Chart illustrating developed land use in Focus Area 1 (August 2019)

➢ Tourism (blue):  There is only one property that is specific to tourism,  Tangier Island Cruises, and this location serves as parking to take tourists to another location.

➢ Eateries (orange): These are also relative to tourist traffic, but typically do not generate traffic themselves unless they serve specialty items like crabs – which one establishment does offer.   

➢ Retail (purple): This is another service pertinent to tourism, though is primarily dependent upon existing traffic. Incidentally, the majority of current retail stores in Crisfield fall under the category ‘home-wares,’ selling antique, nautical and rustic type merchandise.

Typically, those who patronize this type of retail establishments are adult-women, who comprise only a portion of potential tourism traffic, and they usually only purchase a knick knack or something they can carry in a small bag, which requires a high level of sales to sustain a business.  

Incidentally, on Saturday Sept. 14, 2019, I rode downtown at 6pm.  There were two charter buses at Tangier Island Cruises and there were actually a few dozen tourists walking around.  All of the retail stores were closed, and two of the three retail stores had people looking in their windows.  It would be beneficial to implement, or improve upon, the coordination efforts to ensure that these businesses are open when large groups come to town.  

➢ Others: Every aspect of land use is of great importance and warrants further research.  I address land use in later sections, and I also have a substantial amount of information not included in this report.

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Hotel / Conference Center:  First, to be clear, I receive no pleasure from criticizing any idea that’s intended to benefit Crisfield.  I personally know many of the people who support, and participated in the planning of, the proposed H/CC and I’m confident that their motivations for doing so are to benefit Crisfield.  Considering this, I’m also confident that these same people would welcome input that is also intended to help Crisfield, and consider it according to its validity – even if it’s different from their current plan.   

A sketch of the proposed Hotel & Conference Center (H/CC) as published in the Crisfield – Somerset County Times newspaper. 

The orange line represents the approximate land area that would become part of the H/CC according to the sketch above.  Capt Tylers Crabhouse and the Tawes Museum are on the right, Harbor Light Condos are bottom-left.

Map of Focus Area 1; See Below for Detail

White Areas: City blocks that have development potential to support tourism. 

Yellow Areas:  Locations of historic buildings that have retained their original structure.

Blue Lines:  Waterfront that has development potential to support tourism.

Approximate Total Square Feet of White Areas: 568,776 square feet.

Approximate Total Footage of Waterfront (Blue Lines):  1,274 linear feet.

Map of Focus Area 1 with proposed Hotel/Conference Center; See Details Below

Orange Area:  Approximate Area proposed for Hotel & Conference Center.

NOTE: The White Areas, and the waterfront with Blue Lines are mostly, if not all, privately owned and this map is in no way intended to reflect the plans and/or future intentions of any property owner.  However, I know almost every person who owns property on the waterfront shown in the left map above, and, they’re all savvy business-people and I’m highly confident that if there was a lucrative opportunity involving tourism, they’d fully consider it. 

Approximate Total Square Feet of Orange Area: 196,470 sq. ft. (not including what’s proposed outside of Focus Area 1)

Approximate Total Square Feet of White Areas: 372,306 sq. ft.

Approximate Total Footage of Waterfront (Blue Lines):  714 feet

THE PROPOSED HOTEL & CONFERENCE CENTER WOULD CONSUME APPROXIMATELY 35% OF ALL AREAS THAT HAVE DEVELOPMENT POTENTIAL TO SUPPORT TOURISM.

THE PROPOSED HOTEL & CONFERENCE CENTER WOULD CONSUME APPROXIMATELY 55% OF THE WATERFRONT THAT HAS DEVELOPMENT POTENTIAL TO SUPPORT TOURISM.

The above information should illustrate how important it is to determine the feasibility, and economic impact, that the proposed H/CC will have before any other actions on it are taken.

In addition to the substantial land area that the H/CC will consume, a parking garage is proposed to be on the south-west corner of 9th and W. Main St.  Not only should the aesthetics of a parking garage on Crisfield’s main road be a point of concern, but according to the above sketch that was published in the Crisfield Times, the Watermen’s Inn restaurant – one of Crisfield’s most historic buildings – would have to be demolished in the process.  

According to the above sketch that was published in the Crisfield Times, the white area w/ orange border in the map shown above is the approximate area of the Parking Garage that’s being proposed to be built with the H/CC.
This would have the Parking Garage consuming 34,000 square feet of land area (almost 10% of the area that has development potential to support tourism in Focus Area 1).
It appears, according to the sketch published in the Crisfield Times, the Parking Garage is designed to be 3-stories in height. Undoubtedly, the Parking Garage – if built – would drastically transform the landscape, aesthetics and atmosphere of downtown Crisfield – the city’s most valuable real estate.

Incidentally, the ‘Watermen’s Park’ that is currently proposed to be adjacent to the H/CC – in my opinion – is a mistake as well.  As explained previously, every square inch of Focus Area 1 should be used to produce economic activity.  Community parks and Green Spaces should be located in other areas wherever possible.  Moreover, our watermen are one of the greatest assets that Crisfield has, they’re a valuable product and should be utilized to generate as much revenue as possible. People will pay to learn about our watermen.

Respectively, I feel that the above information provides sufficient reasons to support that constructing a H/CC in Focus Area 1 would be a serious misuse of the land-area.  The design currently proposed for a H/CC will consume a substantial part of Focus Area 1, including a large percentage of the waterfront, which should be used for businesses that require waterfront access, such as jet-ski rentals, parasailing, etc., which will be addressed in a later sections.

It may be wise to consider if another Focus Area is adequate for building a H/CC.  It can still be within walking distance of Focus Area 1, but won’t increase the congestion of vehicle traffic within Focus Area 1, and allow for more businesses to be established in Focus Area 1 that will independently, and collectively, generate far more tourism traffic than a H/CC. 

Establishing a major attraction should be the priority.  With a guaranteed traffic flow that will be created by a major attraction, the CTI will then be in a position to announce RFP’s (request for proposals), for a H/CC and the CTI will be able to issue these on its own terms.  For example, the RFP will stipulate the size and location of the H/CC, how many rooms the hotel will have, the future reinvestment efforts that the developer will need to agree to and other relevant information.  With a guaranteed traffic flow, developers will agree to a deal that’s beneficial to all.

I’m all for building a H/CC, though I do feel it may be beneficial to incorporate an indoor water-park with the H/CC so it will be an attraction itself, and provide traffic year-round.  Many examples of hotels/indoor water-parks can be found on the internet.

Again, I just want what’s best.

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Attitude & Mindset:  These attributes are especially relevant to Crisfield’s current situation, and their consideration should be an integral part of any plan.  To my knowledge, the predominate attitude currently held in Crisfield is that the most crucial issue needing attention is job creation.  

At a May 22, 2019 meeting, a member of the City Council stated that they voted in favor to progress on a H/CC because it could produce “living-wage” jobs.  While job-growth is important, we have to ask ourselves how much impact living-wage jobs will have on revitalizing Crisfield’s future?  Sherman-Williams has a constant need for workers, so Crisfield has employment opportunities, and these positions offer a living-wage with room for advancement.  

The research I’ve conducted shows that it may be wise to consider another type of attitude, which is instead of pursuing specific projects that may create living-wage jobs, focus on completely rebuilding Crisfield by creating a new industry which will entice locals to become entrepreneurs, start their own businesses and create jobs themselves.  If executed properly, it may even result in creating a resurgence of ‘entrepreneurial fever,’  which could lead to ‘Boomtown 2.0,’ and ultimately, a ‘New Crisfield.’

Another negative attitude that is prevalent, and needs to be addressed, is the mentality of ‘thinking small.’  This has developed over many decades – and is completely opposite to the attitude held by early-Crisfielders.  Tourism has the greatest potential to become the industry of the future, and is likely the only realistic option.  However – and make no mistake about it – for tourism to have a significant positive effect there will have to be a few thousand tourists visiting Crisfield the majority of days throughout the year.    

Point being, the attitude and mindset must change, and it will take a methodical public relations campaign to do so, but it must be done.  Some of the methods to achieve this will be addressed throughout this report. 

NEXT PAGE: 1.6 ANALYSIS OF CRISFIELD’S CURRENT TOURISM INDUSTRY

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