The man who runs many of Baltimore's marinas, a former captain in the Israeli navy, prefers the sky to the sea.
The only boat he owns is a gondola, which he keeps tied up at his marina in Canton.
"I love aviation; that's my passion," said Dan Naor, 47, chief operating officer of Baltimore Marine Centers, as he stood next to a cherry-red helicopter on a recent weekday. He flies it — not as often as he'd like — from Pier 7 in Canton, the base of another business he runs, Baltimore Helicopter Services.
Naor's passion for flying is matched by his excitement about revitalizing Baltimore's harbor — making it a cleaner, more stimulating place to visit, live and do business. And perhaps tie up a boat at one of his marinas, which make up nearly half of the city's recreational dock space.
When Naor first came to Baltimore, the city's waterfront was a far grittier place, more industrial and less hospitable. Naor and his business partners bear significant responsibility for the waterfront's transformation, particularly in Canton, which has become one of the city's hottest destinations for affluent newcomers.
"They've been instrumental in revitalizing the marina side of Baltimore," said Stuart Amos, who has kept a boat at Baltimore Marine Centers' Lighthouse Point docks for about five years and is involved in the city's maritime community as vice chairman of the Pride of Baltimore II's board of directors.
Rachel Roitman, Naor's big sister, describes her brother as "brilliant" — someone who's able turn his ideas into reality. "He does what he loves. He doesn't go into stuff he doesn't like," she said.
Fortunately for Baltimore, Naor's interests coincide with the city's needs. He has spent years refreshing Charm City's marinas and is now turning his attention to cleaning the Inner Harbor, expanding the helicopter business and invigorating the local waterfront dining scene with a new floating seafood restaurant.
Born in Haifa, Israel, Naor wound up in Baltimore in a roundabout fashion.
At 14, he began studies at an Israeli naval high school — his eyesight wasn't good enough for the air force. After graduating, he served as a submarine officer and as captain of a surface vessel. He left the military at 26.
Traveling in Thailand after leaving the service, Naor broke his leg and went to Roitman's house in New York to recuperate. While there, he applied for a job as a yacht captain.
Despite his bad leg, Naor was hired and entered the world of wealthy American boaters. In short order, he became the captain of another vessel, partly owned by Dr. Selvin Passen, a Baltimore pathologist.
"I've been basically trained by Dr. Passen," Naor said. "He's taught me to recognize opportunity, to have the guts to do it."
It was aboard Passen's yacht that Naor arrived in Baltimore for the first time, in the early 1990s. On that visit, Naor stumbled upon a parcel on Lighthouse Point that was for sale. He suggested to Passen and several other investors that they buy the property and build a wharf.
"My vision was a small marina," Naor said.
The investors expanded upon Naor's idea. They began making plans for the mixed-use development — residences, restaurants, retail, offices and a luxury marina — that stands today off Boston Street.
"When I came over here … there was really nothing here. And look how beautiful it is now," Naor said, climbing out of his Land Rover in the parking lot of Lighthouse Point, which has 500 boat slips and nearly 20 commercial tenants.
Naor, who works 12-hour stints at least six days a week, said his goal is to attract boaters from Philadelphia and Washington to Baltimore so they spend money in restaurants and shops — and to lure new companies to Baltimore's waterfront.
He describes the 16-acre Lighthouse Point complex as a waterfront country club, with all the amenities of a city. His first business venture in Baltimore, his little idea, became a hub of development in Canton and bolstered the city's Gold Coast.
In the late 1990s, as Lighthouse Point was being constructed, adjacent development boomed: A grocery plaza opened across the street and high-end condo complexes went up throughout the neighborhood. Naor helped develop the Moorings at Lighthouse Point — he lives there — as well as the North Shore townhouses and the Lighthouse Landing Apartments.
"Danny's always coming up with new, fresh ideas," said Dr. Steven Berlin, an investor in Naor's ventures who has watched him grow as a businessman over nearly two decades in Baltimore.
Since the launch of Lighthouse Point, Baltimore Marine Centers has purchased the 350-slip marina at the Harborview tower and begun managing 20 slips at the Ritz-Carlton Residences. The company also contracted with the city to operate the Inner Harbor marina near Rash Field.
When Baltimore Marine Centers took over the Harborview marina, the company invested $1.5 million to repair the property and unlocked the gates to the massive pier. In the summer of 2010, Naor opened the popular Tiki Barge — a refurbished barge with a pool and bars — at the end of the pier, which is lined with towering palms.
"They make you happy; they make you smile," Naor said of the tropical trees.
In spite of Naor's reputation as an idea man, he doesn't micromanage, said Bud Craven, who designed the tiki bar at Bo Brooks restaurant at Lighthouse Point. Craven was enlisted to make the Tiki Barge happen and has been given the job of getting another floating business off the ground.
"The thing about Danny is, I've got vision and he lets me run with it," said Craven, who has a decades-long history of operating restaurants in Baltimore and Ocean City.
Now, the Raw Barge Seafood Company, a casual seafood restaurant that Naor and Craven plan to dock at Harborview, is ready to float.
Craven and a handful of others worked for months to turn the two-story barge — a "rust bucket," Craven called it — into a wood-paneled restaurant with room for a raw bar.
"Every few days, I come, I smile and then I leave," Naor said, praising Craven's ability to create a restaurant from nearly nothing.
Naor and Craven are negotiating with the city for a permit and are not sure when the restaurant will open.
Other businesses Naor is involved in include Eastern Flotation Systems, which manufactures floating docks, and Baltimore's only privately owned, public-use heliport, located on Baltimore Marine Centers' Pier 7.
Celebrities, businesspeople and politicians routinely use the pier's landing pad when they visit Baltimore. Local television stations employ it to gas up their helicopters, and Johns Hopkins Medicine keeps a medevac helicopter and crew at the site.
Pier 7 is also home to Naor's pet project, Baltimore Helicopter Services, which he launched in 2004.
"It can bring a lot of potential business into Baltimore City," Berlin said of the heliport and the service's chartered flights.
In addition to executive charters, the helicopter service routinely flies doctors and organs for transplant operations to hospitals throughout the Mid-Atlantic. Naor and his partners added a second helicopter last month.
Naor also travels nearly every month to Haifa to oversee another helicopter service, Lahak Aviation, that he established in 2005. With about 30 pilots, Lahak is the sole provider of medevac services in Israel and also provides transport to the offshore gas rigs cropping up in the Mediterranean.
In spite of his success in Israel, Naor said he is in Baltimore for the long haul. His other businesses are here, his friends are here and his two teenage children are in the United States, he said.
Naor estimated that he employs about 100 people among all of his endeavors. Much of their achievement can be attributed to Naor's ability to spot and hire good people, said Jack Antwerpen, the Baltimore car dealer who became friends with Naor after docking his boat at one of his marinas.
Now Naor has turned his attention to restoring the harbor.
"It's a really gorgeous harbor and it's a huge asset," he said. "Us, as the keepers, we need to keep it safe. We need to work as hard as we can to clean the water."
Naor is seeking government authorization to install huge swaths of floating wetlands in unused sections of Baltimore Marine Centers' marinas.
The Baltimore district of theU.S. Army Corps of Engineerssought public comment in May about a 1.6-acre wetland at Harborview that would feature floating walkways for pedestrians.
"Our goal is to clean the water," Naor said, and "drop 10 acres of parks in the middle of the Inner Harbor."
twitter.com/stevekilarCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun