Havre de Grace's historical renewal

Hotels: The owner of the Crazy Swede has restored old buildings to use them as guest suites.

January 29, 2004|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

On Union Avenue in Havre de Grace, most of one block's restored two-story homes are marked by the sign of Ken Beyer's Crazy Swede.

The burgundy, tan and green signs announce a growing guest-suite business, which Beyer began in 1999 when he took over the Crazy Swede bar and restaurant.

Since then, he has worked his way down the block, buying derelict houses, creating his own urban renewal project along the way.

Beyer, 47, has invested $3 million to purchase six houses and an old hotel, restoring the 19th- and early-20th-century buildings to their glories, down to the original leather wainscoting. Collectibles - such as old baseball programs, duck decoys and racing memorabilia - tell guests some of the stories of Havre de Grace's past.

In recent years, entrepreneurs like Beyer have come to Havre de Grace, the Harford County town on the Chesapeake Bay, to turn the tide on tourism. Though travelers have come through here since the days of the American Revolution, it has been in the past decade or so that a fresh crop of small businesses, boutiques and restaurants have joined the staples of decoy shops and Bomboy's candy store.

A handful of inns, bed-and-breakfasts and guest apartments have popped up in the historic downtown area, each marketing to its own type of visitor.

Beyer has built his business by knocking on doors of local industry and inviting its leaders to lunch at the Crazy Swede. Now many send their out-of-town employees and clients to stay with him.

Beyer said his vision for the business started in the restaurant building, the old Chesapeake Hotel. He considered the upstairs, then divided into "nasty" apartments.

"I never look at the existing building. I look beyond that," Beyer said. "I thought, `We can go back to that'" hotel past.

Beyer transformed the rooms into guest suites designed to cater to corporate travelers. "I thought we were on to something. We went to 100 percent occupancy immediately," he said. "We made a lot of bold decisions early on."

The Crazy Swede has 20 suites, which range in size from studios to six-room suites. All have private baths, kitchens or kitchenettes, Internet connections, desks and daily housekeeping.

The nightly rate is about $150 (for six rooms) for a setting Beyer says he hopes feels a little like home.

Antiques, luxurious linens and details such as exposed-brick walls, parquet floors and French doors make an impersonal motel room seem dull.

"I want them to feel really good about staying here. I want to earn them back," Beyer said. And if he hasn't seen his regulars for a while, he gives them a call to find out why.

John Muldoon, owner of the Vandiver Inn down the street, said Beyer is a straight shooter whom he enjoys knowing through their "constructive competition." Muldoon and his wife, Susan, cater more to the wedding and tourist crowd in their 17-room business.

Muldoon said the homey touch is a must in Havre de Grace's fledgling hospitality industry. "This is a town that still has that small-town feel, and I think people expect that - expect the personal service that inns like Ken's and ours offer," he said.

Beyer used to offer guests breakfast, but as the business grew, he said, his employees often spent two or three hours each morning wheeling carts up and down Union Avenue to deliver rolls and coffee, and picking up dishes.

Beyer's wife, Laurie, does books and payroll - when she's not home-schooling the couple's three younger children, ages 13, 6 and 3. Their eldest son, David, 24, is general manager and lives on the premises.

"We're definitely a family business," he said.

Beyer grew up in Churchville, the son of a commercial pilot and homemaker, one of five sons. He is a 1975 Aberdeen High School graduate and attended Harford Community College before getting into commercial real estate.

He left that business several years later to work at Father Martin's Ashley, a nationally known drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Havre de Grace. He remains on the board today.

But a little entrepreneurial voice kept nagging him, he said, to get back into business for himself.

So in 1999, after much looking, he rented the Crazy Swede with an option to buy.

Beyer wanted to change the Swede's happy-hour hangout reputation, so he instituted a smoking ban and curtailed late nights and live bands.

A swan decoy, festooned with the colors of the American flag, perches on the bar to greet guests as they enter. Stained glass and maritime details decorate the paneled dining room, which serves seafood, steaks and sandwiches.

Beyer has brought a calmer air to the 400 block of Union Ave. Before he settled on the street, the once stately homes had gone the way of cheap rentals and crack dens, he said.

"Ken Beyer has done a fantastic job - not only with a restaurant, but with the restoration of houses in the block," said Al Henry, Havre de Grace's economic development director. "He's kind of led the way in the restoration of old buildings."

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