A monument to the Harley-Davidson

Nostalgia: A new entertainment complex in Delaware showcases American highway culture and the motorcycle that helped make it famous

Short hop

January 17, 1999|By Terry Conway | Terry Conway,Special to the Sun

Burning highway. For Harley-Davidson owners, it's the fever and the cure. And that, Mike Schwartz predicts, will be the big draw to his $8 million Harley-themed entertainment complex in northern Delaware.

Last month Schwartz unlocked the doors to Mike's Famous Roadside Rest, dedicated to the twin themes of America's pre-1970 highway culture and a pearl of Americana -- Harleys.

The nostalgia-dripping facility in New Castle showcases a "Museum of the Road," the Warehouse Grill and Mike's Famous Harley-Davidson dealership, which Schwartz has owned for five years. It's all housed in a 40,000-square-foot building that fuses a replica of Harley's red-brick, 1903 manufacturing plant with the smooth, multicolored enamel panels reminiscent of post-World War II service stations.

It is set in the shadow of the Delaware Memorial Bridge, and Schwartz hopes to pluck his share of the estimated 100,000 cars a day (30 million annually) that travel Interstate 295 -- 80 percent of whom are tourists.

Mike's Famous Roadside Rest emulates the surging trend among sports/entertainment corporations to promote their products through visitor attractions that educate, entertain and peddle tons of retail merchandise. Although the project is backed by the storied 95-year-old motorcycle company, it's not a Harley-Davidson-sponsored venue but a dealership like the other 600 in the United States.

Dressed in a Harley-Davidson denim shirt, jeans and work boots, the burly Schwartz rears back in his chair and expounds on his vision.

"I'm selling nostalgia," says the 40-year-old. "I saw the opportunity to bring retail, food and entertainment together, but unlike a lot of other retailers who are doing this in a trophy property in major cities, we're doing it right on the highway. This was never really my dream, it all just kind of fell into place with the success of the dealership."

Back in the early '90s, married and with a young son, Schwartz was content running a pair of financially secure Wilmington businesses. Then he jumped on a Harley, thundered down the road and rolled on the throttle.

"I had never ridden a Harley, and I wanted to find out what this allure was of 'owning the road,' " he says. "Once I saw for myself what made this bike so popular, I was hooked."

In 1994, he purchased a languishing dealership on the outskirts of downtown Wilmington and renamed it Mike's Famous Harley Davidson. After quadrupling the dealership's revenues, Schwartz started looking around for a way to expand.

He found a vacant Howard Johnson's Motor Lodge, and he's been redeveloping that 5.8-acre site since December 1997, first restoring the vacant orange-roofed triangular registration gatehouse, then constructing the dealership/entertainment complex.

"My place is rough and solid -- like a Harley -- not slick like Planet Hollywood," he says.

When visitors enter the complex, motorcycles loop in one direction, cars in another. A walk along a bricked courtyard adorned with motorcycle displays brings visitors to the north entrance of the building. The red-brick warehouse facade has a peaked roof with stone cappings and windowsills outfitted with old window grids.

Inside, structural steel beams have been used to create a workshop/warehouse design along with 10,000 feet of 100-year-old hard pine floors reclaimed from distilleries and warehouses, plus jagged brick walls, exposed heat pipes, ductwork and lighting fixtures, all from a bygone era. An art deco feel is prevalent in some areas with terrazzo and tile flooring, a favorite of diners in the '40s and '50s.

On a wing of the second story, there's a historical display of America's highways as well as vignettes depicting Harley's heritage since the 1930s. It transports visitors on an interactive two-wheel journey down the byways of a bygone era that illustrates the growth of man and machine. Through circular windows, visitors view monuments on a grass knoll of the Veteran's Memorial and the expansive Delaware Memorial Bridge.

The museum features the only Harley-Davidson ridden around the world. It was an 83,000-mile journey on a '72 Harley Wide Glide by world record holder Dave Barr, a paraplegic.

Visitors can eat at the 50-seat Warehouse Grille and savor the feel of a turn-of-the-century manufacturing-plant cafeteria as well as peer in at mechanics in the service area customizing Harleys. The site's former Ho-Jo's triangular gatehouse has been converted into a takeout restaurant called 2GO!, and a welcome center is also in place.

Schwartz hopes to draw motorcycle enthusiasts, nostalgia buffs, families and tourists from the Interstate 95 corridor. His projections call for about 276,000 visitors the first year.

A second phase of development will center around a 6,000-square-foot, 200-seat restaurant across from the dealership, which will feature down-home American fare. Eventually, a second 250-seat restaurant, a 75-room hotel and a Mike's Famous service station will join the complex.

But for now Schwartz is content to take a breath and let his "Golden Era of America" take shape.

"It's been a great experience building it, but it probably would have been a good idea if I had built a house or even a deck first, so that I would have a better handle on the construction process," he says with a laugh. "This was a pretty daunting first project."

WHEN YOU GO ...

Where: Mike's Famous Harley Davidson is located on I-295 and Route 9 south at the base of the Delaware Memorial Bridge in New Castle. It's about an hour's drive from Baltimore.

Getting there: Take Interstate 95 north to Delaware, then, just outside Wilmington, take I-295 north for about two miles and exit at Route 9 south, the last exit before the bridge.

Contact: Call 302-658-8800 or (800) FAMOUSHD. Check out www.mikesfamous.com.

About the area: Call Wilmington Convention & Visitors Bureau, 302-652-4088 or visit their Web site at www.wilmcvb.org.

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