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After years of decline, 'welcome mat is out'; Growing: Two small towns on the Chesapeake Bay hope an influx of residents and tourists signals a return to boom times.


CHESAPEAKE BEACH -- Gerald Donovan remembers the way it was, back when crowds of summer folks came to ride the carousel, dance to local bands, throw change in slot machines and frolic in the Chesapeake Bay.

Today, 30 years after this little honky-tonk town's luck ran out, Donovan is trying to bring back the boom times.

"The welcome mat is out," says Donovan, 50, a lifelong resident and mayor since 1983. "There have been more people coming each year, fresh coats of paint on houses, more tourism -- and I think all the changes will mean improvements in our quality of life."

His optimism apparently isn't misplaced. Over the past decade, several thousand new residents have discovered Chesapeake Beach and neighboring North Beach, once-popular resorts in northern Calvert County that were all but forgotten after the state outlawed gambling in 1968.

Upscale condominiums have sprung up along their waterfronts. Housing subdivisions are rising next to restored cottages. Both towns, known locally as the "Twin Beaches," are burgeoning. By the end of the decade, their combined population will have swelled to about 5,600, from 3,576 in 1990, because of the influx of retirees and Washington-area commuters.

Slowly but steadily, in making the shift from vacation spots to year-round suburban outposts, the Twin Beaches have been rejuvenated. Chesapeake Beach -- and to a lesser extent North Beach -- are reinventing themselves and creating new waterfront attractions. And that has meant big changes for longtime residents.

"We used to like it when Labor Day came and all the people left," says Joy Broome Morgal, 53, a hairdresser who has lived in North Beach all her life.

"But then," she recalls, "nobody came. These towns just died. Now, I like to see the people, the development. It's good for business."

Chesapeake Beach rescued a bankrupt marina five years ago, then built a community center and opened a water park. Next on the town's agenda are a veterans memorial, a new boardwalk and possibly the redevelopment of some ball fields into a miniature golf course or other recreational facility. The mayor, banking on a tourism resurgence, wants to develop an 80-room inn on land he owns not far from where an amusement park once stood.

Growth next door, too

Next to Chesapeake Beach but half its size, North Beach is struggling behind its built-up and better-off neighbor.

North Beach's most visible sign of progress is a rebuilt fishing pier and recently installed boardwalk. They stretch beside the gently curved beach, across from several vacant storefronts, the IGA grocery and a weed-covered lot. There are no beach concessions, not even an ice cream stand, and scarcely any modern conveniences like a bank machine.

"I haven't made a dime yet," acknowledges Ron Russo, who built Bay Walk, North Beach's first beachfront condominiums in 1991 and is erecting 49 apartments for the elderly.

Still, he and other civic boosters are optimistic that within a few years, North Beach will bustle anew.

Housing prices are climbing, real estate agents say. A young restaurateur has turned a run-down saloon into a popular grill. The town is moving ahead with a planned $2 million center that will house a medical clinic, shops and a gourmet market, and the new mayor hopes to work with Russo to create a maritime museum.

They might envy Chesapeake Beach's economic revival, but many North Beach residents acknowledge at least a little ambivalence. They fear that in gaining development, their town risks losing something less quantifiable: its identity and charm.

"It's a great walk-around town. People don't want to lose that," says Linda Travers, who works in Northern Virginia and ran a bed-and-breakfast in North Beach until recently.

"If you want to go down and put your toe in the water, you can," she adds.

"To reduce stress, I would just go and sit on the beach and look for sharks' teeth. You can't do that in Chesapeake Beach because the beach is all condos."

Towns once bustled

For all their efforts to polish up, however, the Twin Beaches have a long way to go to recapture the prosperous luster of their heyday.

A group of wealthy investors hoped to create the "Monte Carlo of the East" when they developed Chesapeake Beach at the turn of the century. They built a 28-mile railway from Washington to their resort, featuring a hotel, a rambling boardwalk, dance pavilions and a huge wooden roller coaster.

Through the 1920s, thousands of heat-weary Washingtonians took the train there, while Baltimoreans arrived by steamboat. Some stayed all summer in cottages at the north end, which became North Beach. The railroad stopped running during the Great Depression, however, and few day-trippers came by automobile with wartime gas rationing.

The amusement park reopened after World War II, and for a while the towns rebounded -- thanks largely to income from drinking establishments and slot machines.

But the carefree crowds began to ebb once the Chesapeake Bay Bridge opened in 1952. And after legal gambling ended in 1968 and the amusement park closed in 1972, they disappeared.

Back to boom times

"It's been a boom-to-bust cycle here, every 15 to 20 years," says Harriet M. Stout, curator of the Chesapeake Beach Railway Museum. "We've been due for a boom."

By the mid-1980s, after a long decline during which they were mostly known for biker bars, the Twin Beaches began to attract first-time homebuyers and empty-nesters.

Young professionals followed, willing to trade a 55-minute commute to Washington and an even longer drive to Baltimore for the reasonably priced waterfront housing. Today, beachfront condos sell from $200,000 to $300,000; winterized bungalows are as cheap as $90,000.

"We're big beach-goers, and now we're a half-block from the water. You can even see the water through a tree here," says Lisa Zengel, who moved last summer with her husband, Joe, from Glen Burnie to a $98,000 home in North Beach.

Rebirth brings money

Chesapeake Beach's renewal has doubled its tax base, from $35.4 million in 1989 to $74.7 million today. The town has incorporated two large subdivisions still under construction; in the last year, a developer has proposed an eight-story apartment building for one of its last empty stretches of beachfront.

The mayor, who owns several restaurants and a charter fishing business, has been criticized as too pro-development. But he argues it has allowed him to lower the tax rate five times. "It's popular to be against growth," Donovan says. "My attitude is, let's manage it, and let's get the type of growth we desire."

In North Beach, the recently elected mayor, Mark Frazer, 57, is also debating how to control growth. Frazer is a newcomer, a dentist and former Calvert County commissioner who moved into a rented beachfront cottage and fell in love with the town.

"We're interested in tourism, not high-rise housing," he says. "We need a bank, we need an ice-cream shop, we need a coffee shop. I think it will happen. There is a spirit of optimism in this town that is contagious."

On a recent winter morning, he met with a young couple who want to open a business in town. By summer, Heather and Ray Kennerly hope to be running a quintessential beachfront attraction: North Beach's first Tastee Freeze.

Pub Date: 1/24/99

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