City's election to test vision

Havre de Grace tries to balance tourism, small-town charm

April 30, 2001|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Havre de Grace, at the confluence of the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay, has survived numerous floods and even a vicious sacking by the British in 1813.

The resiliency of the Harford County city and its 15,000 residents is expected to be tested anew as Havre de Grace fights to balance an enduring small-town charm with a revitalization reshaping it into a thriving tourist destination.

Steering that fragile metamorphosis will be the city's next mayor, who will be elected tomorrow. Three of the six City Council seats are also at stake.

As campaign signs dot the city landscape like dandelions, six candidates have filed for the council. Incumbents Betty Coakley and Fred Cullum are seeking re-election. The others running are Barbara Ferguson, Armando Framarini, Barney Mills and Nancy White.

Incumbent Mayor Phil Barker, a former military Russian linguist and retired corporate manager, is facing a challenge from educator and former mayor David R. Craig.

Barker is seeking a third two-year term and appears a slight favorite, locals say, because of his strong commitment to historic preservation blended with building a tourist destination at the top of the bay.

The two candidates are metaphors for Havre de Grace's small-town culture. Both are fathers of three and attend the Methodist church on Sunday. They coached in the same Little League. They even opposed each other before, in 1985 when Craig beat Barker by 26 votes. Each has served on the City Council, and Craig was a state legislator.

"Our city's future has never looked brighter," said Barker, 66. "After the election, Dave Craig and I will be buying bread at the same store, and it will all be history."

For Craig, 51, the mayor's mission is clear: "Havre de Grace should remain a good place to live. And sure, tourists will help us preserve and celebrate all of our history. But I am not a fan of seeing chains like Banana Republic sprout all over town."

If there is a common denominator for Havre de Grace, it's a rich fabric of history, dating to 1608 when Captain John Smith explored the area.

Seven museums are situated in and around Havre de Grace. Hundreds of buildings, including Victorian houses on Union Avenue, are in the National Register Historic District.

In 1782, a soldier from Comte de Rochambeau's troop coined the town's name, French for "Harbor of Grace."

Today, people still like to say that Havre de Grace is the birthplace of Cal Ripken Jr., carefully omitting baby Cal's dispatch from the maternity ward at Harford Memorial Hospital to his home in nearby Aberdeen.

"The city was in sort of a limbo but things are changing," said John Klisavage, owner of Washington Street Books and Antiques.

A downtown streetscape project and rubber-tire trolley, projects of the incumbent mayor, have local merchants happy, Klisavage said, that "things are happening in a conservative way. You look at other places that grew too fast, like Bel Air, and historic buildings were knocked down.

"Here in Havre de Grace, most people know that history is our bread and butter," Klisavage said.

Other residents say a steadily growing international trade has been attracted to the city from Interstate 95, people who usually travel nonstop between New York and Washington.

Barker, who likes to speak of his alliances with state agencies, says he persuaded the state Department of Transportation to place signs on I-95, beckoning visitors to such attractions as antique shops and the bay-front promenade.

"We have guests from Europe and Canada," said Liz Nemeth at a bed-and-breakfast in the Spencer-Silver Mansion, the town's only High Victorian stone mansion. Guests must book months in advance for accommodations such as the $140-a-night carriage house.

"Both mayoral candidates are aware that tourism will decide this city's future," said Ronald Kupferman, executive director of the local chamber of commerce. "There has been talk of a luxury hotel moving in, the Bulle Rock golf course is expanding and the locals have embraced that this is how this city will grow and prosper."

Craig, an assistant principal at Southampton Middle School in Bel Air, agrees Havre de Grace residents must "change our mentality, that tourists are not a bad thing if taken slowly, in a conservative fashion."

"Along with tourism we must be mindful to attract young families as new residents," Craig said. The challenger thinks the mayor has taken credit for projects that were years, or in one case more than a century, in the making.

"There was money for the streetscape 10 years ago," said Craig. Proposals for a milelong jetty that would establish a safe harbor around Havre de Grace for visiting boaters were first discussed in 1830 when Havre de Grace was a sleepy fishing village, he argued.

Barker remains undaunted. "I brought in $4 million in new revenues, changed an antiquated city charter and have worked hard to push this city's great heritage with citizen involvement," he said.

"Havre de Grace is Maryland's best-kept secret," Barker said with a wry smile. "For now."

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