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Easton merchants hoping historic hotel stays afloat


EASTON -- From the vantage point of Larry Albright's gun shop, the venerable Tidewater Inn looms over the bustling corner of Harrison and Dover streets like a grand dame of the Eastern Shore.

But lately rumors are flying about the future of the red-brick, Federal-style hotel that for half a century has successfully mixed upscale elegance with such hunter-friendly traditions as a 4:30 a.m. breakfast and a welcome to those who want to keep their retrievers in their rooms.

A bank is threatening to foreclose on the inn's latest owner, and downtown merchants are worried.

Albright figures his business is as closely tied as any to the Tidewater. During goose-hunting season, there's practically a path worn from the slate floor of the hotel lobby across the street to Albright's display window. Their Web sites are linked.

Like so many others, Albright remembers full-course Thanksgiving turkey dinners at the Tidewater with his family, who then spent the rest of the weekend hunting. Those memories helped him decide to start a business here.

When the foreclosure notice turned up last month in a newsletter that tracks Talbot County real estate transactions, Albright and others were a little rattled.

"This is worrisome to hear -- it's the cornerstone of downtown," said Albright, a Baltimore transplant who opened the gun shop 25 years ago. "The hotel is ... important for bringing in tourists, hunters, other visitors. It's the pride of the Eastern Shore. That's what the logo has always said."

Some say the place is ripe for conversion to condominiums, a prospect that chills business leaders and town officials. There has even been talk of converting the building into an assisted living facility.

But many think the inn, clearly the most significant commercial building in Easton, could be better used if some rooms were combined into larger condominium units -- not unlike urban hotels that have long-term renters or owners on upper floors. Others say the place needs to be gutted and modernized.

Merchants have applauded recent moves to increase foot traffic at the Tidewater such as leasing space to a real estate brokerage, a hair salon, a bank branch, and even a small ticket office for the art deco Avalon Theatre, which anchors a corner opposite the inn.

Another change was the opening of an outdoor patio dining area that captures Easton's warm weather ambiance.

Stephen Crease, who left the Tidewater last year for a top management spot at the Talbot Country Club, says rejuvenating the hotel will take "someone with a good amount of money and imagination."

"Every great city has a great old brick hotel," said Crease. "The Tidewater could be that kind of hotel again."

For all the gossip and speculation around town, principals in the business -- the hotel's owner, John M. Mervine Jr. and Greater Atlantic Bank of Reston, Va. -- have been tight-lipped about Mervine's $5.3 million loan.

Al Bond, Easton's economic development director, says the hotel is working on a one- to two-year improvement plan and seeking new investors. "It's such a visible part of downtown, I can tell you it is not going to close," said Bond. "The town did a marketing study about two years ago and the Tidewater is a major piece of what makes Easton Easton."

Maureen Scott-Taylor, vice president and managing director of the inn, says the company and its lenders are actively seeking investors who can add capital for modernization. She said she would like to eliminate some cramped rooms and spruce up old bathroom tiles and fixtures, and add new furniture, paint and curtains. Recent changes include hiring two innovative young chefs and a new food and beverage director.

Occupancy is up 15 percent to 20 percent this year and the summer season is almost completely booked, said Scott-Taylor, a native New Yorker who sits on the Easton Town Council.

The hotel's banquet and meeting rooms continue drawing various business, political and community groups. Diners are still fascinated by the elaborate murals of Maryland historical scenes painted by artist John Moll when the hotel was built. The huge fireplace, slate floor and grand staircase of the hotel's lobby rarely fail to impress.

The Tidewater's strength, says Scott-Taylor, is its tradition and sense of history --including a $250,000 art collection and "an attic full of art" she hasn't had time to even peruse.

Mayor Robert C. Willey, 63, remembers days when the Tidewater was the center of practically everything in Easton. Days when it was maybe the only high-quality restaurant around.

"It was always the kind of place you'd take your girlfriend, your wife for dinner or your mother for Mother's Day," Willey said. "I suspect there are a lot of ghosts in that building."

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