On Eastern Shore, For-Profit 'Flagship' Hits Shoals

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By David B. Ottaway and Joe Stephens
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, May 5, 2003

OYSTER, Va. -- With great difficulty, the Nature Conservancy five years ago hoisted an abandoned U.S. Coast Guard station building onto a dolly, slipped it onto a barge and shipped it six miles to the outskirts of this little town on Virginia's Eastern Shore.

For $3 million, the 210-ton Cobb Island Station was then converted into a rustic 12-room inn intended to anchor a high-end tourism venture. The inn was part of a collection of for-profit ventures the Conservancy launched here in the 1990s to convince the dwindling local population that small business could be profitable and preservation-friendly.

Now, the Conservancy has determined the Cobb Island Station project was a waste of money. The restored inn is shuttered and for sale.

One by one, the other Conservancy-backed business ventures at the group's 45,000-acre Virginia Coast Reserve failed. In October, auditors tallied the cost -- millions in losses and a slew of failed companies. They also found that the project -- which envisioned a locally based sweet-potato-chip company, an oyster-and-clam operation, even a real estate development -- was beset by incoherent planning, "management issues" and properties that were a "sink for resources."

The subject headings in an independent report commissioned by the Ford Foundation, one of the project's financial backers, list more succinct reasons for what went wrong: "flawed concept," "flawed business plan," "flawed execution."

The troubles demonstrate the difficulty of the Conservancy's strategy of blending for-profit businesses with community-based conservation.


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© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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