Planners hope trail will lead to growth

Renewal: North Beach mayor hopes to build a nature trail that would be the destination for children on field trips and tourists on vacation.

January 09, 2001|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

When Mark Frazer was elected mayor of the Southern Maryland town of North Beach two years ago, he could see the glitter beneath the grit.

The once-rollicking family resort of the 1920s and 1930s - later a destination for gamblers - seemed to be on its way back from an extended period of decline. The rebuilt pier and new beachfront condominiums overlooking the Chesapeake Bay set the tone for renewal, and Frazer has continued the momentum.

He built a welcome center on the boardwalk, established a beach patrol and began streetscape improvements. It's a promising start, but Frazer has bigger plans for this town of 2,400 on the northern edge of Calvert County. His centerpiece: a proposed nature trail that would link North Beach with the community of Rose Haven, about a mile away at the southern tip of Anne Arundel County.

Starting at Herrington Harbor Marina in Rose Haven, the 1.2 mile walking and biking trail would cross woods and a saltwater marsh and end in North Beach at a planned environmental museum. Frazer envisions children on field trips to the museum and nature walk where they would be able to study wetlands.

It's an ambitious project, and in the early planning stages, but Frazer has enlisted powerful supporters, including state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, whose district includes North Beach, and Herrington Harbor owner E. Stuart Chaney, who owns most of the land on which the proposed trail would be built.

"The economic future of our town is clearly based on our ability to attract tourists to support our businesses," said Frazer, 59, a dentist who has a practice in Prince Frederick. "The idea is that it will promote not just opportunities for economic growth, but observation of a wildlife habitat."

The project coincides with an effort by the Army Corps of Engineers to restore a 440-acre salt marsh at the north end of North Beach.

The proposed nature trail would cut through the marsh, one of the state's most important breeding habitats for black ducks, which has been degraded over the years by Route 261.

From Chaney's perspective, a trail would provide an activity for his marina and inn customers who don't have many options in Rose Haven after docking the boat.

"We don't have shopping and antiques and arts and crafts," Chaney said. "It would expose North Beach to a lot of people in yachts who can afford to purchase things."

Although the exact route of the nature trail has not been decided, the estimated construction and engineering cost is $2.6 million. Frazer said trail organizers are exploring financing options, and he hopes that federal money will pay for half of the project, with matching funds from the state and other sources. He said project supporters are negotiating with Chaney about land costs.

Frazer's vision for North Beach doesn't end with the nature trail and museum. He hopes that a hotel and conference center will replace a stretch of abandoned buildings on key waterfront properties.

"Through all its ups and downs, North Beach has always had a marvelous location," said Frazer, as he picked up trash from the boardwalk on a winter's day.

Dale Thomas, who opened his Nice and Fleazy Antiques Center in town 31 years ago, shares Frazer's optimism about the changes that have taken place in North Beach and about its future.

"It was a landing place for people that were down on their luck," said Thomas, 67, who started his business on Bay Avenue after being fired from a job on Capitol Hill. He arrived shortly after Maryland outlawed gambling, which did away with the town's slot machines. "The windows were open, the buildings were empty and stray dogs and cats were more common than people."

Now, he said, the town is "like a flapjack on a grill, and it's done a 180-degree turn. There's just as much care and interest in the appearance of the place as there used to be neglect and disregard."

Thomas, who used to describe North Beach as "the last ghost town on the Eastern seaboard," said that the nature trail sounds like a good fit for the area.

"I think the town has nothing that gives it an identity like a nature trail, and I think it would be the next logical and powerful step for the town to take," he said.

A mile up Route 261, Rose Haven residents generally support the nature trail. The community houses a mix of retirees and commuters to Baltimore, Washington and Annapolis.

"I think it's a grand idea," said Doug Barber, 51, who moved to Rose Haven from Baltimore 12 years ago.

"I'd give anything to be able to walk through that marsh or have the kids ride their bikes to North Beach safely. You take your life in your hands trying to bike to North or Chesapeake Beach."

But Barber said some Rose Haven residents, who view North Beach as a collection of rowdy bars, have reservations about who will be using the trail.

"Some people feel there's a less-than-ideal element that lives there and are afraid of them coming into the neighborhood," Barber said.

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