John Fager's speciality is hospitality

THIS MAN IS AN ISLAND

August 09, 1992|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Staff Writer

John Fager strolls through paradise, pausing only to wrestle an intruder -- a discarded green plastic bag -- from the reeds that bristle along the boardwalk.

"How did this get here?" he asks, bending to retrieve the rubbish.

One could as easily ask Mr. Fager such a question: How did he create this corner of serenity, of postcard sunsets and of casual refinement known as Fager's Island?

"It just sort of evolved," says the soft-spoken 49-year-old. "I never planned to be in the hotel and restaurant business."

That unplanned career includes ownership of Fager's Island restaurant, which boasts an award-winning wine list, a bayfront dock accessible to sailors and boaters, and laid-back surroundings that draw both tourists and locals.

Then there are the hotels: the Coconut Malorie hotel (named after one of his daughters) and the Lighthouse Club Hotel (last year named one of Mobile Travel Guide's two four-star inns in Maryland; the other is Harbour Court in Baltimore).

All this is nestled on a 5-acre tract overlooking Assawoman Bay, below the state Route 90 bridge. Footbridges and boardwalks cross over wetlands to connect the hotels and restaurant, framed by palm trees and overlooking the water.

"You can come here and leave it all behind," Mr. Fager says, leading a guest to the hotel. "You can park your car here and not use it for days."

Resort within resort

Indeed Fager's Island is a resort within a resort. It's also a family- operated business, one that involves Mr. Fager's wife, Denise, who oversees the hotels, and daughters, Jessica, 26, Malorie, 17, and son, Damian, 15.

"He's very much a self-made success," says Ocean City Mayor (( Roland E. "Fish" Powell. "He didn't come here with a lot of assets. He started a small business, and he and his family have worked hard to make it succeed."

Mr. Fager's story begins in Parkville, where he grew up in a family of four, spending summers in Ocean City like so many other Baltimore-area residents. During high school in the late 1950s, Mr. Fager worked summer jobs there as lifeguard, beach stand operator and telescope photographer.

But hot weather meant more than sand and sun to the enterprising youth -- he also started three businesses: a snowball stand, a lawn-mowing service and a neighborhood subscription service for "TV Guide."

Self-employment may run in the family, he says. Mr. Fager's late father, William, owned a floor tile business. Uncles, aunts and other relatives chose the self-employment route as well. Mr. Fager's younger brother, Raymond, owns Uncle Raymond's Seafood restaurant in nearby Fenwick Island, Del.

During summers off from college, he waited and cleared tables, gaining hands-on experience that would later serve him well. He earned a bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of Baltimore.

In those pre-Beatles days before graduation, Mr. Fager became a business partner in the Blue Dog Cellar, a bohemian-style coffee shop in Baltimore. Then he and his partner opened a summer stand in Ocean City.

"That's how I began to get wrapped up in the restaurant business," he recalls. "In those days you couldn't live in Ocean City year round. The town literally shut down on Labor Day."

Mr. Fager spent the summers in Ocean City and the winters in Baltimore.

"You couldn't make a living here [in the offseason]," he says of Ocean City. "There were a few construction jobs -- not much else."

In the late 1960s, Mr. Fager opened the Purple Moose Saloon on the boardwalk, the first in the resort town of the "new generation" bars, with hanging plants, recorded music and windows -- one that eventually became an Ocean City landmark.

"It wasn't the dark, dingy smoke-filled bar," he says. "We opened it with practically no money at all. We were lucky. The concept was very well received."

Eventually, Mr. Fager sold his partnership in the Purple Moose Saloon, as well as in the Classroom, a bar he owned at the Park Plaza Hotel on Charles Street in Baltimore.

Meanwhile, he and his wife -- a California native whom he met on the boardwalk while she was on a three-day visit here -- bought some property in an undeveloped area of Ocean City with the intent of build ing town houses.

"Everything was on the ocean and the highway," he says. "I loved the beauty of the bay, the quietness, the beauty of the sunsets. I felt other people would enjoy that, too."

But by the mid-1970s, as the Fagers, now year-round residents, prepared to move ahead with their town-house development, the bottom fell out of the real estate market. Plans for 44 town houses were put on hold.

It turned out to be a blessing.

"While we were waiting, we thought we would build a little bar," Mr. Fager says. "We thought we could wait it out."

Built off the ground on pilings, Fager's Island opened as a bar in 1975. It was a Key West-style bar -- open views of the bay, live plants and drinks made with natural ingredients -- built in just 90 days, he says.

"It was a huge success from opening night," Mr. Fager says.

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