'Mark the Shark' hits shoals of hard times

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

They used to call Mark R. Vogel "Mark the Shark" as he zoomed through Maryland's development community gobbling up properties and making a fortune.

In his spare time, Vogel gave lots of money to charity, bought the PTC state's harness racing tracks and tried to purchase the Orioles.

But times change.

First came a crippling slump in the real estate market that has pulled the plug on several of Vogel's developments. At the same time, his two harness tracks have limped along, making only a fraction of what the state's thoroughbred racing industry brings in.

Finally, a week ago, Vogel, 42, found himself in jail, arrested in suburban Virginia and charged with possession of cocaine. He spent three hours behind bars before being released on bail.

"Mark Vogel was a shooting star," says state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who has watched Vogel become a major developer in Prince George's County and a minor figure in State House politics.

Vogel was arrested driving a Corvette in the affluent Great Falls area in northern Fairfax County, Va., about 9:30 p.m. last Thursday. Vogel, who lives just across the river in Potomac in Montgomery County, left jail after posting a $10,000 bond about 2:30 a.m. Friday.

Federal authorities have been investigating Vogel for several months, according to published reports. One report in the Washington Post suggested that other Prince George's developers also are being investigated both for drug use and influence peddling.

Vogel has not been available for comment. His lawyer has declined to discuss the case.

In addition to a possible jail term for Vogel, a criminal conviction could force him to sell the two harness tracks still operating in the state -- Rosecroft in southern Prince George's and Delmarva Downs outside Ocean City.

"If drivers and trainers are banned from tracks for substance abuse, obviously the same should hold true for owners as well," says Miller, D-Prince George's.

"If he's done what he's accused of, he's let a lot of people down," says Del. Paul E. Weisengoff, D-City, a leading supporter of the racing industry in Annapolis. "I'm really disgusted with the guy."

Vogel has always been an intriguing figure, either lobbying in the State House or moving through banking circles in metropolitan Washington. His image was anything but corporate. He would bob along under a haircut that didn't always hang straight and dressed in clothes that might be heavily stained or even ripped at the knee.

He talked fast and straight, flew in a helicopter and thought big.

After a short but successful career selling real estate, Vogel took only a decade or so to amass over a billion dollars worth of his own real estate and development projects scattered around the Washington area and on the Eastern Shore.

One of his biggest projects is the Bowie New Town Center, a collection of offices, residences and commercial space along U.S. 50. In the first few years of the project, Vogel made several million dollars just selling some of the Bowie land back to other developers, according to reports.

Along the way, he gave lots of money to charity and helped the public schools and the University of Maryland. Vogel also gave generously to a midnight basketball program for inner-city youths and a dam-building project sponsored by the Washington-based Africare organization. A veteran of the Peace Corps, he has said he saw firsthand the need in Africa for dams and other improvements.

Tuesday, the day his arrest became publicized, Vogel was scheduled to play in his charity golf tournament to benefit a hospital. He pulled out rather than have his new notoriety overshadow the event.

"He's a guy who came out of nowhere," said Vincent D. Palumbo, a member of the board of Jefferson Bank and Trust Co., a Greenbelt institution that has financed some of Vogel's ventures, and foreclosed on at least one. "He's got a lot of influence, but he's done a lot of nice things for people, too."

These days, Vogel faces bad financial news on several fronts.

Vogel's plans to buy an 800-acre chunk of the Ocean Pines development near Ocean City fell through this year because he could not secure financing, according to Tim Stoner, an Ocean Pines manager. Likewise, he has been unable to finance a $17 million purchase of the Atlantic City race course, which he has pursued for more than a year.

Vogel recently defaulted on loans totaling more than $5 million for two Prince George's projects, and a planned luxury %o development west of Ellicott City is still a dream after two years.

Another Vogel project -- on Tangier Sound at the southern end of the Eastern Shore -- has limped along for 18 months.

In April 1989, Vogel agreed to pay $1.7 million for 108 acres of undeveloped waterfront property on the sound. But a year after Vogel put 26 lots of the newly created Hammock Pointe development on the market and priced them from about $70,000 to $495,000, the land remains undeveloped except for a pair of homes under construction by two members of a local investment group that sold the land to Vogel.

Vogel's firm has failed to make payments on the Hammock Pointe purchase for months, according to James Dodson, a member of the group that holds the mortgage on the land.

"He's in arrears with us, but we're trying to work something out with him," Dodson says.

Vogel's arrest was discouraging, Dodson says, but he and his business associates remain hopeful they can settle the Hammock Pointe deal without a foreclosure.

"We deal differently down here than they do in the big city," Dodson says. "We don't want to step on him when he's down.

"He's always been a decent fellow with us," Dodson adds. "I just hope he gets out of this and pays me my money."

Vogel, like many other real estate developers, is caught in a squeeze.

"I don't think anybody has seen such a softening of the market and tightening of credit that is being felt right now," says Raymond G. LaPlaca, another Prince George's developer and chairman of Jefferson Bank. "That's an extremely depressed business right now."

Despite Vogel's arrest, Rosecroft operated last night at its typically slow midweek pace. There were only 31 reservations in the dining room by the 7:30 p.m. post time, and waiters complained that they had nothing to do.

Rosecroft employees grumbled that management has done little to promote the track and noted that the average daily handle of about $490,000 is about $100,000 less than similar average handles at Freestate during its recent boom years. Vogel is not a visible managing presence, dropping in only four or five times a month, according to employees.

Jim Murphy, the manager brought in by Vogel to run the track, contended that Rosecroft is a profitable and successful venture, but track observers say they fear that Vogel is more interested in milking the track's profits than investing in its future.

"The track provides a large cash turnover," said one employee who asked to remain anonymous. "There is the feeling that he can pay his [track] bills, pay the purses, then pocket the rest to keep his real estate empire from going belly-up."

Ross Peddicord contributed to this story.

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