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LEONARDTOWN, Md. — Leonardtown has undergone many changes over the past few years and many more are planned. The latest project is one that promises many benefits for local residents, farmers, businessmen, and tourists alike.

Laschelle Miller, Leonardtown’s Town Administrator, is excited about the project. “I always enjoy talking Leonardtown as you could probably tell,” said Miller. She noted that the finished work will contain a picnic area and a kayak launch into McIntosh Run. But, the part that Miller is most enthused about is the upcoming winery and accompanying vineyard demonstration area. The entire project has been duly named, “Port of Leonardtown.”

In 1999 under Maryland’s Program Open Space (POS), the Leonardtown Town Commissioners purchased two acres of land from the state that used to serve as a State Highway Maintenance facility. The County Commissioners own another one acre parcel adjacent to the site that will be included in the project. Established under the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in 1969, POS provides funds for state and local parks and conservation areas.

The piece of property is located near the intersection of Route 5 and Compton Road (Route 243) immediately adjacent to the Taco Bell property.

When the town first purchased the property, it could best be described as an eyesore. The first thing that was done was to remove the debris and a few old buildings that had no hope of restoration. Of the two buildings that remain, one will serve as the winery and tour headquarters and the other will house concessions, restrooms, and storage. The design plans call for the façade of the latter structure to be “reminiscent of the Steamboat era.”

Miller noted that the property lies in a flood plane. “Once a building has been removed, it can not be replaced,” said Miller. This led to the inevitable decision to renovate the existing buildings.

In 2002, after the initial cleanup of the property, the town set its sights on the development of the kayak launch using a grant from the DNR. The launch enables sportsmen to kayak down McIntosh Run for a 3 mile trip that terminates in Breton Bay at the Leonardtown Wharf. The $5.5M public park that is under development at the Wharf will ultimately include a kayak landing. Miller hopes that one day the town will also be able to provide kayak rentals at the launch area.

During their trip down McIntosh Run, the kayakers will travel through a little known 58 acre bird sanctuary. The sanctuary is what is known as a FIDS Habitat. FIDS stands for Forest Interior Dwelling Species. According to the DNR, these are bird species that require large forested tracts in order to live and reproduce. Many neotropical migrant songbirds are FIDS and rely on large forested areas in the Chesapeake Bay watershed for breeding and nesting.

While the 3 acre Port of Leonardtown property is owned by the town of Leonardtown and the County Commissioners, the project is the result of the teamwork of many groups including the St. Mary’s County Commissioners, the St. Mary’s County Department of Economic Development, the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and a group of local farmers and businessmen known as the Southern Maryland Grape Growers and Wine Association (SMGGWA).

The town is primarily responsible for providing the park on the property. The County Commissioners have provided $500K in FY-2007 funding for the development of the actual winery. Miller said that the County has already hired a winery consultant who is determining what needs to be done in order to turn the existing facility into a fully functioning winery.

John Savich, Director of Economic Development in St. Mary's County, explained that one of the primary goals for the Port of Leonardtown is to help develop tourism for Leonardtown and St. Mary’s County. He said that Economic Development has been working very closely with the town toward that goal. In addition to assisting with this project and the Wharf redevelopment, they have ensured that Leonardtown is well represented in the tourism brochures, on tourism road signs, and at the Welcome Center.

Both Savich and Miller also stressed that the winery is an important part of the Tobacco Buyout program that is administered locally by the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission. They said that the state will assist local farmers in converting some of their land to growing grapes by providing matching funds and training. The grapes can then be sold and used to make wine at the winery.

The Southern Maryland Grape Growers and Wine Association (SMGGWA) has been instrumental in the development of the winery. James Horstkamp of Compton is a member of the Association. In an email response, Horstkamp said that SMGGWA was formed several years ago to facilitate communications and share knowledge between local grape growers. The County approached SMGGWA about forming a subgroup to be the grape supplier and operator of the winery. The result was the formation of the Southern Maryland Wine Growers Cooperative (SMWGC). Horstkamp is the President of the Cooperative.

Savich said that negotiations are currently underway with the cooperative to determine their role in operating the winery. He noted that there are still many details to be worked out.

According to Horstkamp, the cooperative is comprised of thirteen individuals of varying backgrounds and experience. Bruce Perrygo, a resident of St. Mary's, is currently the manager of Virginia's Ingleside Winery. Steve Purvins—another member of the cooperative—is one of the larger grape growers in our region. He has been planting vines for over seven years.

Horstkamp says that he plans to plant 800 vines in April. “One of our primary concerns with the new co-op is the initial supply of grapes,” said Horstkamp. “Although it will be on a much lesser scale, growing grapes is similar to tobacco as it is a high value crop and we feel it can really take-off down here.”

Horstkamp noted that he is confident that the acreage of planted vines will increase with time. Towards that end, the co-op is seeking more members. “The co-op will be a buyer and provide support and hence there will be significantly less risk,” noted Horstkamp. “We hope the co-op serves as an engine to pull farmers, and even hobbyists, into this area of grape growing.”
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