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THIS MAN IS AN ISLAND John Fager's speciality is hospitality

THE BALTIMORE SUN

John Fager strolls through paradise, pausing only to wrestle an intruder -- a discarded green plastic bag -- from the reeds that bristle along the boardwalk.

"How did this get here?" he asks, bending to retrieve the rubbish.

One could as easily ask Mr. Fager such a question: How did he create this corner of serenity, of postcard sunsets and of casual refinement known as Fager's Island?

"It just sort of evolved," says the soft-spoken 49-year-old. "I never planned to be in the hotel and restaurant business."

That unplanned career includes ownership of Fager's Island restaurant, which boasts an award-winning wine list, a bayfront dock accessible to sailors and boaters, and laid-back surroundings that draw both tourists and locals.

Then there are the hotels: the Coconut Malorie hotel (named after one of his daughters) and the Lighthouse Club Hotel (last year named one of Mobile Travel Guide's two four-star inns in Maryland; the other is Harbour Court in Baltimore).

All this is nestled on a 5-acre tract overlooking Assawoman Bay, below the state Route 90 bridge. Footbridges and boardwalks cross over wetlands to connect the hotels and restaurant, framed by palm trees and overlooking the water.

"You can come here and leave it all behind," Mr. Fager says, leading a guest to the hotel. "You can park your car here and not use it for days."

Resort within resort

Indeed Fager's Island is a resort within a resort. It's also a family- operated business, one that involves Mr. Fager's wife, Denise, who oversees the hotels, and daughters, Jessica, 26, Malorie, 17, and son, Damian, 15.

"He's very much a self-made success," says Ocean City Mayor (( Roland E. "Fish" Powell. "He didn't come here with a lot of assets. He started a small business, and he and his family have worked hard to make it succeed."

Mr. Fager's story begins in Parkville, where he grew up in a family of four, spending summers in Ocean City like so many other Baltimore-area residents. During high school in the late 1950s, Mr. Fager worked summer jobs there as lifeguard, beach stand operator and telescope photographer.

But hot weather meant more than sand and sun to the enterprising youth -- he also started three businesses: a snowball stand, a lawn-mowing service and a neighborhood subscription service for "TV Guide."

Self-employment may run in the family, he says. Mr. Fager's late father, William, owned a floor tile business. Uncles, aunts and other relatives chose the self-employment route as well. Mr. Fager's younger brother, Raymond, owns Uncle Raymond's Seafood restaurant in nearby Fenwick Island, Del.

During summers off from college, he waited and cleared tables, gaining hands-on experience that would later serve him well. He earned a bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of Baltimore.

In those pre-Beatles days before graduation, Mr. Fager became a business partner in the Blue Dog Cellar, a bohemian-style coffee shop in Baltimore. Then he and his partner opened a summer stand in Ocean City.

"That's how I began to get wrapped up in the restaurant business," he recalls. "In those days you couldn't live in Ocean City year round. The town literally shut down on Labor Day."

Mr. Fager spent the summers in Ocean City and the winters in Baltimore.

"You couldn't make a living here [in the offseason]," he says of Ocean City. "There were a few construction jobs -- not much else."

In the late 1960s, Mr. Fager opened the Purple Moose Saloon on the boardwalk, the first in the resort town of the "new generation" bars, with hanging plants, recorded music and windows -- one that eventually became an Ocean City landmark.

"It wasn't the dark, dingy smoke-filled bar," he says. "We opened it with practically no money at all. We were lucky. The concept was very well received."

Eventually, Mr. Fager sold his partnership in the Purple Moose Saloon, as well as in the Classroom, a bar he owned at the Park Plaza Hotel on Charles Street in Baltimore.

Meanwhile, he and his wife -- a California native whom he met on the boardwalk while she was on a three-day visit here -- bought some property in an undeveloped area of Ocean City with the intent of build ing town houses.

"Everything was on the ocean and the highway," he says. "I loved the beauty of the bay, the quietness, the beauty of the sunsets. I felt other people would enjoy that, too."

But by the mid-1970s, as the Fagers, now year-round residents, prepared to move ahead with their town-house development, the bottom fell out of the real estate market. Plans for 44 town houses were put on hold.

It turned out to be a blessing.

"While we were waiting, we thought we would build a little bar," Mr. Fager says. "We thought we could wait it out."

Built off the ground on pilings, Fager's Island opened as a bar in 1975. It was a Key West-style bar -- open views of the bay, live plants and drinks made with natural ingredients -- built in just 90 days, he says.

"It was a huge success from opening night," Mr. Fager says.

Additions came like children in successive years. First a restaurant, then decks, an outside bar, a pier and a gazebo.

Then came the hotels. Built in 1988, the 85-suite Coconut Malorie resembles British Colonial architecture found in the Caribbean. Rooms are decorated with tropical plants and specially designed furniture, made of wood, reeds and bamboo.

Caribbean flavor

"I always wanted something with a Caribbean flavor," he says. But he also wanted to offer his customers special touches like terry cloth robes, turn-down service, makeup mirrors and hair dryers in bathrooms.

About the same time the Fagers began building the hotel, an adjacent piece of property containing a replica of the Thomas Point Lighthouse near Annapolis went up for sale.

Mr. Fager couldn't resist.

"I just couldn't let it pass," he says. "I loved the building."

He converted the former restaurant into a 23-suite guest house, with custom-made furniture and rooms featuring marble Jacuzzis and private balconies.

The guest house is more intimate, "more romantic" than the hotel, Mr. Fager says. Unlike the hotel, it has only a minimal front desk presence, sometimes staffed by daughter Jessica.

Mary Tawney, administrator for the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association Inc., says the hotels have filled a niche in the resort market, catering to yuppies and young couples who want to be pampered.

"He has given tourists a new choice," she says. "He's offering luxury accommodations on the bay side. We didn't have that before."

The rates, though, are comparable to ocean-front rooms. Rates at the Coconut Malorie, for instance, range from $169 to $219 on weekend nights. An ocean-front room at the Quality Inn on the boardwalk ranges from $154 to $179 and requires a three-night minimum.

Business at the Fager's Island hotels has been good, Mr. Fager says. Hotel revenue in July was up more than 12 percent from the same month last year.

"We got off to a slow start when we opened -- it was the end of the season," he says, noting the hotels are now in their third season. "Hotel business takes awhile to build up. It's been good."

Despite his visibility at the hotels and restaurants, Mr. Fager is an "intensely private man," says his wife, Denise.

"He's much more comfortable talking about business than himself," Mrs. Fager says. She calls him "a wonderful family man.

"This is such a social business that when you get home you need to close the door. We need that time. We cherish that time."

Nonetheless, business consumes much of Mr. Fager's time -- at least during the tourist-filled summer months when he arrives at his office by 5:30 a.m. or 6 a.m. each day.

"I enjoy it," he says. "I love coming to work." Hands-on owner

His employees call him a hands-on owner. Bellhop John Coleman says it's not uncommon to see Mr. Fager in the kitchen cooking.

"He's everywhere," says Louise Nall, a hotel reservation clerk. "He's at the restaurant, he's at the hotel. He answers the phone. Just this morning he was in here helping a guest find a roll of film."

Although the Fagers both put many hours into the businesses, neither are workaholics, Mrs. Fager says. The long hours are just the nature of the business.

"It's all very much a hands-on operation," she says. "We involve ourselves and our employees in all aspects of the operation. We don't want employees to feel departmentalized."

Mr. Fager says he loves the direct contact with the public that comes with greeting and seating guests at the restaurant.

His guests meet a congenial man, tanned and trim, a man who is proud of the restaurant's 10,000-bottle wine collection, culled from trips to wine-growing regions of Europe and California.

"I think the wine collection makes a statement about the %J restaurant, about our commitment to quality," Mr. Fager says.

He attributes his success to "street education," those years spent working in restaurants, and from traveling.

"I know how I like to be treated," he says. "We've found things we liked as we've traveled and brought them here."

Those things include Haitian art, which adorns the walls of each hotel room and a recently opened gallery in the tower of the Coconut Malorie.

The art gallery and a library have been among the few expansions at the complex in recent years. The Fagers fell in love with Haitian art while vacationing in the Caribbean. On trips there, they buy art and antiques for themselves and the hotels.

These days he also is kept busy as a member of the board of Atlantic General Hospital, now under construction in nearby Berlin.

"The hospital shows how Ocean City is evolving into a year-round community," he says. "The hospital is going to be very important for the long-term benefit of the community."

Indeed, Mr. Fager has been an asset to the community, says Mayor Powell.

"He's always present and takes a very active part," Mr. Powell says. "He's a very prominent citizen."

Mr. Fager says he has no concrete future plans. He has bandied about the idea of buying an existing, older hotel property for renovation.

"Whatever, I do, it would certainly be in Ocean City," he says.

THE FAGER FILE

, Date of birth: Jan. 23, 1943

Residence: Ocean City

Family: Wife, Denise; children, Jessica, 26, Malorie, 17, and Damian, 15.

Education: Graduate of Baltimore's Polytech; bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of Baltimore.

Hobbies: Tennis, skiing, traveling and horseback riding.

Quote: "Ocean City is absolutely the greatest resort on the East Coast -- from the cleanliness of the beaches, amenities and other things happening here. We're lucky in the state of Maryland to have an Ocean City right at our back door."

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