Gerald Donovan coverNBT Interview:
Gerald Donovan
with Sandra Martin

Another Big Splash
As Cancer Gala Makes a Million

Chesapeake Beach began life 104 years ago as a place to have fun. Sixteen-year Mayor Gerald Donovan - who with his brother Fred owns the town's most visible and best known enterprises, the restaurant marina Rod 'n' Reel plus, down the road, Stinnett's - has done his ambitious best to bring back the fun.

"We don't want to lose the character of the town with explosive growth or overburden the utilities. We want growth we can all be proud of," Donovan told New Bay Times at his town's centennial, in 1995.

Since then, Donovan has given the old resort a new landmark: the palm trees and towering twin slides of a waterpark that's small in size but big in wet pleasures. Nothing so extravagant has been seen in Chesapeake Beach since age and integration closed the old Chesapeake Beach Park in 1972.

He's built sidewalks and now a boardwalk to make Chesapeake Beach a place where people walk about. And he's collaborated with North Beach, the state and feds and even Anne Arundel County to give the Beaches' citizens that most important of invisible amenities, a good, clean sewer system.

As a businessman, his impact has been even greater. With one hand, the Donovan brothers have helped shape a quiet and increasingly - though not exclusively - affluent Bayside bedroom community. The land where the old park stood was developed and sold by the Donovan brothers. In the place where a seaside bathing pool and carousel lured hot city folk rose a graceful townhouse development with a sweeping view of the Bay. Its streets are named for the park's famous attractions, among them Bandshell Way and - for the famous maker of carousels - Dentzel Court.

With the other hand, Gerald and Fred - whose family has been entwined with town fortunes for 60 years - have kept the good times rolling. They've made Rod 'n' Reel a center of entertainment by day and night. Charter boats deliver Marylanders to the Bay's choicest fishing spots. Two restaurants feed all comers. Video poker machines and a six-day-a-week bingo game keep them entertained.

If you want to throw a big party or go to a big party in Calvert County, Rod 'n' Reel's the place, as it will be Thursday, August 5, when over a thousand Marylanders gather at Calvert County's Cancer Crusade Gala to feast, see and be seen and, above all, celebrate life by raising big bucks to fight cancer.

In his office at Rod 'n' Reel, we talked to Gerald Donovan about the Cancer Crusade Gala and the future of Chesapeake Beach.


Q Calvert County's Cancer Crusade Gala, A Celebration of Life, brings the American Cancer Society more money than any other single-event fund-raiser in Maryland. Just how much money does it bring in?

A Starting with Congressman Steny Hoyer, who chaired the event in 1996, we changed direction to somebody who's going to raise a considerable amount of money. Congressman Hoyer brought us about $25,000 on his own, and then Senate President [Thomas V.] Mike Miller, Rick Bailey and Marvin Oursler of Marrick Properties all brought something to the table. This year, our 18th, Brooke and Karen Kaine are going all out.

We're about $174,000 shy of getting to the million-dollar mark. Last year we raised $147,000. So if we could add about $30,000, we'll have obtained that million-dollar mark. That would be wonderful, but it's a pretty lofty goal.

There are three components to the success of the Gala. One is the people who attend and pay the ticket price. Financial success has come also with the sponsors, whose donations make up about half the annual total. Categories range from Bronze, for a $100 donation, to Diamond, for a $5,000 gift.

We're still working on this year's sponsorships. They look very good. I think we'll do as well as last year; hopefully, more.

We live in a region that is extremely generous. The Gala affords people an opportunity to make a difference, because there have been many improvements in how cancer is treated, how it's viewed, the whole nine yards.

Q Tell us about how the Cancer Gala came to be.

A My dad died of lung cancer, and my brother Freddy and I, who jointly own Rod 'n' Reel and Stinnett's, wanted to do something in his memory. We're in the party business. That's what we know how to do, and we decided it would be our best way to contribute. We approached the local unit of the Cancer Society and asked them could we do this. The first year, we told them we weren't going to give them a bill, so they said yes.

Cancer is something that's touched every family. We all know folks who've passed away, and hopefully we all know more folks who've survived. That's what this is all about, to try to find the money and research dollars to come up with the cure and treatment.

Q The money raised by the Gala goes to a number of research projects at local universities like Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland, doesn't it?

A That's right. The primary beneficiary is the American Cancer Society. They help people who can't afford for instance transportation or whatever the case may be. Our role hasn't been how the money gets spent. Our role has been to raise money.

[Sixty percent of all money raised in Maryland by the American Cancer Society stays in Maryland, much of it going to fund education, patient services and local life-saving research at such institutions as Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland. In 1995, for example, Johns Hopkins received $2.8 million from the American Cancer Society, for research like Dr. John Fetting's search to alleviate the side effects of chemotherapy.]

Q In the years since, the event seems to have taken a life of its own.

A I remember the first meeting like it was yesterday. Audrey Evans, retired clerk of the Circuit Court; businessman Jack Williams and John Smith of BG&E were there. So was Denny Murray of Bay Mills, who's been a huge supporter and honorary chair, raising thousands of dollars. The crux of the meeting was, we've got all these people coming; how can we raise more money. Denny started the sponsorship idea. We broke the sponsorships up that first year in three election districts. Our goal was $2,000 out of each election district.

If you look at the sponsor board today, it transcends election districts to include Anne Arundel, Charles, Prince George's and St. Mary's counties and all of Calvert County. We even have outfits from Washington, D.C., that sponsor, so it's been really a joy to watch it grow.

Eighteen years ago, it was a little of a struggle, but as the years went on, it got better and better.

Q What's Rod 'n' Reel's role now, besides providing the location?

A We provide the food and beverage, charging the local unit of the American Cancer Society only what the food and beverage costs us. That usually runs to about $25 a person.

We help with getting the honorary chair. We have a lot of people volunteer. Our charter boat captains, including their spouses and some of their mates, have been wonderful, helping prepare and serve the food. Buckmasters' Crab House down at the end of the dock has always helped us with steaming lobsters. People from Stinnett's, Rod 'n' Reel and Smokey's all work. The folks from our bingo operation work.

Our neighbors in Chesapeake Station have been very helpful in providing the parking, too, for it's a night when you bend the parking rules a little in the name of charity.

Over the years, it's become a community effort. The third component of success is by far the army of volunteers. It's incredible. There's a lot of people who make it happen year in and year out.

Here's another example. This year we're running a bus or two from Solomons, donated by Paul Shaw, the owner of Bayside Charters and Tours bus company.

Q What's on the menu?

A We try to do just about everything we know how to do with the food. We do about 600 Maine lobsters, jumbo lump crabmeat, huge shrimp and all of the other things that go with it. The dessert table by itself is something that we really get a lot of comment about.

Q Altogether, it's a pretty lavish spread. Give us a preview of how it will look on August 5.

A The entire area is wrapped with food and beverage stations. Then the whole waterfront is lined up and part of the parking lot. We've added a pier that connects the two docks with tables and chairs and umbrellas and palms. Our local landscaper comes and makes a beautiful, beautiful rock display with a fountain. That's the case of another volunteer.

Steny Hoyer and Gerald DonovanQ The Gala is reputed to be the county's premier social event. Who will we see?

A The Marylander of the century was Louis L. Goldstein. Mr. Goldstein introduced me to a lot of people from the governor to the different county executives. Doug Duncan, the Montgomery County executive, last year he and his wife were both here. Wayne Curry from Prince George's County. This year I'm hoping C.A. 'Dutch' Ruppersberger, the Baltimore County executive, and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend both will be here. Mayor Kurt Schmoke of Baltimore, who comes down to go fishing, his people have been here. Our local politicians come. I don't think Mike Miller or Del. George Owings have missed one. I'm also hoping all our local county commissioners will be here.

Ellen Sauerbrey was here last year and we rolled out the red carpet for her. It's very much a nonpartisan evening.

Q How many people come?

A Usually between 1,200 and 1,400.

Q How did you get into this "party business"?

A Wesley Stinnett, my grandfather, was born here at the turn of the century and worked on the railroad. He worked out here in these swamps during the Depression. In 1936, he and my grandmother built Stinnett's and moved the whole family there. Then in 1946, he bought in down here with Chesapeake Beach Park and Rod 'n' Reel and moved all the charter boats down here.

My mother, Daphne Stinnett, and father, Fred Donovan, both worked for the amusement park. He was the general manager of the whole operation.

My uncle Gordon Stinnett ran the Rod 'n' Reel and later bought Stinnett's from my grandmother. Gordon and his wife Terry ran Stinnett's from 1971 to 1992. He passed away shortly after he retired, but he was a wonderful teacher, as were my father and my grandfather.

Then Freddy and I bought Stinnett's from my Uncle Gordon.

I never really thought too much about it. I grew up in the food business and I always liked it. Matter of fact, I've loved it, and it's been good to me.

Q Have you ever done anything else?

A I was in the Marine Corps for three years, and when I got out I took some courses at the University of Maryland. I went to the Baltimore College of Commerce and Prince George's County Community College. Basically, I'm a college dropout.

Q Except for those years in the Marines, you've lived all your life in Chesapeake Beach?

A I haven't gone too far.

Q Are your children going to follow in the family business?

A I have two sons. Ryan, who's just turned 20, will be going to the New School for Social Research in Manhattan this year, where he's studying drama.

Wesley, 22, is going to Anne Arundel Community College part time. He's named after his great-grandfather, Wesley Stinnett Donovan, and he works at Stinnett's. He's learning to manage the restaurant. He's the fourth generation: my grandfather built Stinnett's in 1936.

Rod-n-Reel new

Q What's new at Rod 'n' Reel?

A We've added 40 slips and a connecting pier. That was about a $40,000 improvement. This is our second year with them.

This year, we've put in new bulkhead where the charter boats are, raised the parking lot to prevent flooding, and we've put in new lighting. We spent about $500,000 in improvements this spring.

The Rod 'n' Reel is an ever-changing entity. We're both a charter boat marina and a marina for private boats, with two restaurants, our bingo operation six days a week Tuesday through Sunday. And we try to do a pretty good job with our banquets.

We change with the seasons, and Mother Nature has been extremely good to us this past decade with the fishing. Right now, we are in a bonanza with night fishing.

Q What's the effect such enterprises have on the environment?

A We are very keenly aware that we make our living from Chesapeake Bay, the seafood we sell as well as the charter fishing. I think that all of our charter captains as well as our slipholders are very interested in improving the health of the Bay.

As part of the $500,000 we spent this spring, we put in a drainage system that will filter all of the water coming off of our parking lot that would pick up grease and oil. It goes through a rather elaborate system of grass, sand, wash gravel, more sand and wash gravel again before entering into the storm water drain that goes into Fishing Creek.

We were not required to do the steps that we did. We spent a lot of money, but we were happy to do so.

Q Do you participate in the state's Clean Marina program?

A We think it's a wonderful program and have decided to join that effort. We have a pump-out station here, and a state-of-the-art gas and diesel system that has a leak detecting system. It's all computerized and Y2K compliant. We are very sensitive to the environment.

Q Do you serve Chesapeake Bay crab?

A Yes. We just started serving steamed crabs at Smokey Joe's. Our crabmeat comes from the Bay. All of it isn't from Maryland. Some of it's from Virginia. On occasion, we've had Louisiana jumbo lump here. But predominately we serve Bay crab.

All of our soft-shell crabs and all of our cherry-stone clams come from the Bay. We certainly sell a lot of rockfish and we try to sell it fresh, though it's all from the Bay.

We made a conscientious decision this spring to handle only fresh fish. We sent about eight people up to Boston to a place called Foley Fish Company, a famous supplier of fresh seafood. We have our fish, all of it with the exception of local rockfish and sea trout, flown in two or three times a week: yellow-tail flounder, fresh scallops from St. George's Bay, halibut, mahi-mahi and of course we have our own live Maine lobster tank.

Q Is it true that you're going to add a hotel to the complex?

A My brother and I are right in the middle of working on that, spending an enormous amount of time on the hotel project. I feel very confident that the hotel is coming. Once we get further along, we'll be holding a press conference to go over exactly where the hotel will be located, how many rooms and everything that goes with that.

I think that the architecture of the hotel is extremely important. We don't know exactly what it will be at this time, but it will be an attraction in and by itself whatever it turns out to be.

Q Will a hotel change the configuration of what's here? Will the museum get to stay?

A Absolutely. The museum is a wonderful reminder of our heritage. We donated the museum to the county with an easement by Maryland Historical Trust back in 1979 or 1980. They give us a dollar a year. We're very happy that the museum is here. The folks of the museum have done an absolutely wonderful job of not only restoring it but also keeping it alive. So the museum will stay right where it is.

Q Any other changes coming up on Rod 'n' Reel?

A When the hotel goes up, we will also refurbish the restaurant as well, on the inside and the outside, so it has the same high-grade finish as the hotel.

Q As well as owner of the town's biggest business, you're also mayor of Chesapeake Beach. When did you become mayor?

A I was appointed in 1983, when Buster Fortier, who I served under since 1976 on the council and was close to 80, decided to retire. Then I ran in 1984 and every four years since, with the presidential election.

My grandfather was mayor of the town, and when he passed away my father was the mayor of the town for a short period, serving out his father's term. So we've got a long history down here.

Q Are you going to run again?

A I hope so.

Q How do you campaign?

A I campaign every day. I try to make sure if somebody calls me, I take care of whatever problem they have.

With the death of John Kennedy Jr., it's kind of a reminder. I was only 12 years old when President John Kennedy was elected, but when he was assassinated and since that time as I grew, I really do believe you should ask what you should be doing for your country, not what your country should be doing for you. I think the ideals that he instilled in people, he instilled in me: that we should be doing something to improve our community. That's what I've tried to do in my own little way.

I have always found that the more you give, the rewards are always greater than what you could ever give. I think I come from a family where generosity was just an everyday common part of our life, from my grandfather to our parents. I think my whole family is that way.

Q Let's take a look at your town and what's in its future.

A Soon you'll come over the hill from Rt. 260 into our Veterans' Park. We've bought three properties [on Rt. 261 at the intersection of Rt. 260] that will be demolished for a monument to our veterans that have served this country. We have a committee working on just what the monument will be. Now we know it will be low level and very well landscaped with an American flag. So when you come over the hill into the center of town, what you'll see will be a beautiful vista of the Bay in perpetuity with an American flag there.

The town spent about $500,000 purchasing the properties. We've done this with the help of Calvert County and the Department of Natural Resources Open Space Fund, who will reimburse us over a period of time. The town will tear down the properties and make the improvements.

We also plan to bury the utility lines. Sen. Miller and Del. Owings are helping us negotiate with BG&E, since it's very expensive to do.

Q Just how big is Chesapeake Beach?

A To the north, we extend two blocks above Stinnett's. To the south, all the way to Randle Cliff. We annexed that area about a dozen years ago. We're in the neighborhood of 1,250 to 1,400 residences, and it's growing as we speak.

We have two primary subdivisions, Bayview Hills with over 200 units and Richfield Station with over 700 units. Very nice housing developments, both of them.

Q Would you say that before the coming of Chesapeake Station in the early 1980s, Windward Key and then these new developments, that Chesapeake Beach was a town of largely middle-income homes?

A No, I would say we were at the lower end of things. The good things that happened to the town really happened because of Chesapeake Station. What Bob Ford and Denny Murray did there was pioneering. It was unheard of to have zero lot lines, and in the commercial development to have a drug store, a food store, a post office right here in town and very accessible. It transformed services and practically doubled the town's tax base.

Then interest in the town as a bedroom community just mushroomed, and today we have Windward Key and the other successful subdivisions.

Q These new developments are upper income?

A Mostly middle and upper, that's correct. But there's room here for everybody. Our affordable housing project, the Courtyards at Fishing Creek, behind the marina, I think is what I'm proudest of because it affects how 80 families are going to live. Tri-County Community Action Agency, a non-profit group, owns and operates them. Senior citizens live there. Young families live there. It's a little like what John Kennedy talked about when he talked about ideals and not forgetting people.

Thirty units are occupied and they've broken ground on the next 30. Within the next five or six months, there'll be 60 families living there.

In today's world, especially in Calvert County, for a government to want affordable housing is unique. I'm proud of the fact that we were diverse enough to want that.

Q You've striven for the mixed use that planners talk about as the salvation of our communities.

A Sure. Everybody can't live in a $300,000 or $400,000 home. I would hope we're strong enough that our children don't have to move away to find a place to live.

Q Of course the Chesapeake Beach Waterpark is the most amazing thing in a lifetime to be built in Chesapeake Beach. Was it your brainchild?water park

A Yes, and I'm very proud of the waterpark. But it took the town council believing in it and the people in the bond market believing in the town.

Q Would you describe your work with the town council as harmonious?

\A Absolutely, and it's been that way for over 20 years: absolutely a joy to work with. Some of the vision has definitely come from the council. The six of them have tuned up everything that I have ever presented and kept me in line when I needed to be in line. We are all independent thinkers and have never all agreed on everything all the time, and that's good for everybody.

Q Did the council members ever think such an idea as a new waterpark on Rt. 260 was crazy?

A I've been blessed with a town council that has on occasion put the bit in my mouth and kind of reared back. The town engineer and Dave Sisson were absolutely instrumental in the building of that, and the professionals in Paddock Pool. What really happened was a synergy so that when you added all the parts together, you got more than the whole. The result has been something really special.

Q Are you pleased with it?

A The beautiful thing that happens in the waterpark is for families. You get an inner tube built for two, and mom and dad are in the inner tube and the babies are in their laps, and the families are enjoying everything from the little blue whale in the baby pool to the giant frog to the slides. There's something there for all ages. It's a wonderful economic asset to have.

It's been a huge magnet that brings people to town. About 30 percent of the people are from outside of Calvert County. So the spillover for that has been somewhat of an economic engine for tourism. It's stood on its own financially, and it's done extremely well for the town.

The other thing about the waterpark is that it employs about 60 young people.

Q Has the community across the way at Windward Key come to love it?

A I think there are some people over there who would rather see a traditional lap pool. I hear stories about traffic and what not, but I actually think the impact on people living here has been minimal.

It's a fact of life. People who accomplish things have to recognize they're not going to satisfy everybody. But if the air is filled with children's laughter and families are coming together in a fun experience, in my money, you know, that's not a bad legacy.

So the detractors certainly have a right not to like it, but on the other hand, I think numbers speak for themselves, and the vast majority of people love the place.

Q How many people come over a summer?

A About 50,000 over about 90 days.

Q What's your favorite thing to do at the waterpark?

A I like the beige slide that you go down in an inner tube. The blue slide is a little too fast for me.

Q Is it true Chesapeake Beach is soon to have a boardwalk again?

A The boardwalk is a reality in front of the community center and waterpark today for safety reasons. Then you can cross the bridge.

And the new sidewalk that's along Rt. 261 makes it very safe to walk in town. That was accomplished through teamwork with the state of Maryland and the Board of County Commissioners.

By October of this year, a new waterfront boardwalk will stretch from the top of the hill at 17th street all the way south about a mile to Bayfront Park, the old Brownie's Beach, at 8th Street. The contract has been let.

When they get down there on the waterfront, the first nail is going to be driven by Mildred Finlon [a longtime resident who remembers strolling on the old boardwalk demolished in the mid-1930s and whose husband, Harold, co-managed Chesapeake Beach Park with Fred Donovan, Gerald's father]. I promised her she'd walk on it the year she turned 90, and she will. It will be a wonderful celebration of the day.

Everybody loves to take a walk, and it will be absolutely gorgeous.

It was a $562,000 contract that came into being because of the generosity of the citizens of this town, of Calvert County and the state of Maryland. It was a matching grant, and the town and county came up with the money.

Q Chesapeake Beach has got its community center and waterpark with Veterans' Park and a new boardwalk upcoming. What else is in the future? When are you going to put up a carousel?

A It's a shame that the carousel slipped away from us, but at the time it was inevitable. Prince George's County bought it; it's up at Watkins Park.

I think what we're going to do in the future, if we get the cooperation of the county, is try to improve the recreational area behind the waterpark. We'd like to light the ball park and add a bigger tot lot and more bleachers and parking.

We're kind of victims of our own success there in that we get overrun with parking if there's a ballgame, something at the community center, the boat ramp's in full use and the waterpark's open.

Because we have four acres to enlarge everything, if we can put the parking closer to the boat ramps, the community center and the waterpark and light up the ballfields, I think it will be a major improvement.

Q What's your relationship with North Beach?

A North Beach is making a wonderful, beautiful turn-around under Mayor Mark Frazer that will only help Chesapeake Beach.

Q Has the town's development been Bay friendly?

A Absolutely. We were the first community on the Bay to remove both nitrogen and phosphorous from our sewer effluent wastewater. At the time, Gov. [William Donald] Schaefer was the governor. We received from the state a $680,000 grant, because we were the first ones on the Bay.

The deal we've worked out with Anne Arundel County to accept the effluent from Rose Haven and Holland Point was again the right thing to do, to look at things as a region.

Q It seems to me that one of the decisions that's always fun to consider in one's life is whether you're better off being a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond. Are you happy with the decision you've made?

A I'm extremely happy to be where I am and very, very fortunate to be in Calvert County in an area that has grown.

Growth is a big topic, but for someone who grew up in an area that only had 8,000 or 9,000 people, my attitude has been to welcome everybody here.

Chesapeake Beach is very, very vibrant, one of the three town centers in the county.

Q What that I haven't asked you would you like to say to people?

A Your life is like a river. What makes a river vibrant is its tributaries. We should all be thankful for our tributaries. I've had a lot of support from a lot of different people. They've all - from my family and my roots to people that I work with, my friends - been my tributaries and made me what I am. I'm kind of a winding river with many tributaries. There are a lot of people I would say thank you to.

Q What insiders' advice can you give people coming to the Cancer Gala?

A Get here early and come casual. Come to socialize, and don't stay at any one station too long. Go try to enjoy as many tastes as your stomach will allow you to. Have a few drinks and a designated driver so everybody goes home safe and sound. And realize that you are contributing to a good cause.

Q Where can people get tickets?

A Calvert Bank as well as Rod 'n' Reel have tickets for $60. You can also get tickets at the door, but at $85 it's a little more expensive.

| Issue 30 |

Volume VII Number 30
July 29 - August 4, 1999
New Bay Times

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