Saturday, August 11, 2007

SMITH ISLAND, Md. (AP) — This island in the Chesapeake Bay has been home to watermen for years, but a scheduled auction of homes this weekend shows evidence of changing times for a community with long maritime roots.

Retired city-dwellers are among the primary invitees to today’s auction, arriving at Smith Island to buy homes left by longtime residents. Many residents who descended from centuries of Smith Islanders have left because they couldn’t survive on the declining crab industry.

“The older residents are slowly moving off the island, so I think there’s a slight bit of change,” said John Brown, chief operating officer of Baltimore-based Express Auction, which will oversee the sales. “There is a new audience coming out there and that’s who we are trying to focus on.”

Mr. Brown expects buyers from across the mid-Atlantic region to take a look at waterfront properties that range in price from about $50,000 for fixer-uppers to $200,000 for liveable dwellings.

Carole Ellison visited Smith Island with friends from her vacation community in Rehoboth Beach, Del. She briefly considered buying one of the homes, but ruled the idea out, given the lack of a major grocery store and quality infrastructure.

“It’s sort of the end of an era down here, and you wonder what’s going to happen,” Miss Ellison said.

With paint chipping on many homes — some of which haven’t been occupied in a long time — it appears only a shell of the once-busy community is left.

Shops such as the Driftwood General Store closed because of competition from mainland vendors, said Marty Tyler of Crisfield, a real estate agent who grew up on Smith Island. The few grocers who remain had to diversify, he said, offering deli food, video rentals and other specialties.

Mr. Tyler conceded he could never move back, despite his fondness for the island and the fact he descends from John Tyler, who lived there in the 1680s.

But as vacationers buy property, Mr. Brown said new residents could create demand for more amenities and grow the island’s economy.

“There are definitely going to be more people coming there for vacations and I think with more people coming, there will be some development,” he said.

But it’s not clear whether they’ll be able to adapt to island life. Mr. Tyler said he had sold homes in the past only to have them come back on the market in two or three years.

Crabbing is the primary industry of Smith Island, the only inhabited offshore island in Maryland’s part of the Bay.

“It’s a disappearing way of life, really,” Mr. Tyler said. “In another 40 or 50 years, you’d be lucky to find a waterman over there.”

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