Dan Naor got his start in Baltimore 20 years ago, when he found a 16-acre waterfront property for sale and decided to make the leap into the local marina business.
Today, the Inner Harbor is a vastly different place than it was in 1994, and Naor's Baltimore Marine Centers operates five marinas in the surrounding area.
"In the beginning it was a little rough," said Naor, a native of Israel whose company now acts as an intermediary between Baltimore and some of its most well-heeled guests. "Little by little, we started to expand."
Steady growth along Baltimore's waterfront in the last decade has been good for the marinas, and in 2004 Naor launched his companion company, Baltimore Helicopter Services, to offer his high-end customers the next tier of travel as well.
Both companies are going strong, he said, though they weren't immune to the 2008 financial collapse.
Before that, Naor said his marinas were operating at about 98 percent capacity, jamming with business from new condos and waterfront attractions. But the downturn cut that by about 25 percent.
Now the number is inching back up, and Naor said he hopes to be back above 90 percent capacity in the next three years. He also hopes his helicopter company will continue to grow, partially by attracting more VIPs.
The helicopter business was sustained through the downturn — and is still largely supported — by business out of Baltimore's strong medical market, he said. Teams of surgeons from Johns Hopkins Hospital, for example, often have to catch flights to other hospitals in the Northeast at a moment's notice to harvest an organ and bring it back to a patient in need in Baltimore, Naor said.
Helicopters can take them point to point rapidly, he said, and his company stands at the ready.
"We never know when we will get the call," he said. "We are 24/7."
Amid his busy schedule, Naor talked with The Baltimore Sun about his companies and where they're headed.
How has the Baltimore marina business changed in the last 20 years?
When we first developed Baltimore Marine Centers and subsequent office and residential property in Baltimore, the land was underdeveloped and mostly industrial. Over 20 years, we've seen the city become a major boating tourism attraction on the Chesapeake Bay and East Coast. We've developed an experienced and loyal team of marina management and staff (many of them have been with the company for at least 10 years) and we've attracted marine support business and services to the area that have had a significant impact on the local economy.
Our mission has been to build state-of-the-art marinas with superior service — our marinas can accommodate small yachts to mega-yachts, which are over 300 feet. Even though the city didn't see a lot of boating traffic when we began, we knew if we built it well, the business would follow.
Where do you see it going in the next 10 years?
Baltimore City's attractions are getting bigger and better every year, which equates to more boaters. We're looking forward to the development of more stores, entertainment, nightlife, other historical attractions and activities. Our boaters love exploring the rich maritime history of Baltimore, shopping at boutique shops and major retailers as well as great restaurants and pubs. Many of the boaters come from other states to have a weekend getaway in Baltimore. Our goal in the future is to exceed the expectations of boaters that come to our marinas and educate them on the attractions of the city. We want Baltimore to be one of the best boating destinations on the East Coast.
You say a strong economy, reduced crime and clean water in Baltimore are key to your future success. Why?
A strong economy is vital to the development of the city and its future; it is important that our neighborhoods flourish to attract new residents and tourism. Part of this is reducing crime and the general perception of Baltimore to visitors. Unfortunately, Baltimore hasn't garnered the best reputation in recent years. While we must work on reducing the crime, I think we also need to change perceptions about our city. There are so many positive attributes and great things about this city; we need to have pride in what we have and encourage people to come here.
Clean water is one of the most important issues we face in the marina business in Baltimore; we must have a clean and healthy boating environment. We are constantly educating our staff and boaters on environmental issues and we are always looking for new ways to clean the Inner Harbor.
Most people probably don't associate Baltimore with VIPs hailing helicopter flights. How did you carve out your place in that market?