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Group renovates mansion so tourists can visit Baltimore without breaking the bank

The Baltimore Sun

After eight years without one, Baltimore is close to welcoming a hostel back to town.

The opening, a rare occurrence for the languishing national hostel scene, means travelers to the city will once again be able to find safe lodging that costs less than most hotels' continental breakfast.

"I really believe Baltimore needs a place for young people to come and be able to stay affordably to experience the rich culture of the city," says Scott MacLeod, a hostel volunteer. "I really believe in the mission."

MacLeod and about 10 volunteers have been working for years to raise money from private sources and renovate a deteriorated Mount Vernon brownstone. They say the hostel, at 17 W. Mulberry St., could open as soon as May.

It will be the only hostel in a major Maryland city - the only other Maryland hostel is in Knoxville, near Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

Baltimore's last hostel, which operated from the same location, closed in 1999, shut down by the local branch of Hostelling International because of poor management.

When hostel advocates decided to reopen it, they knew they would be dealing with major renovations on the 1857 mansion, which had fallen into extreme disrepair.

Despite the shabbiness, posh details remained of what had once been the home of a wealthy auctioneer and merchant, Francis W. Bennett. The historic nature of the building enabled advocates to secure a matching grant from Baltimore Heritage Inc.

Even at $25 a night, hostel visitors will be able to hop off their bunk beds and step away from their shared bathrooms to enjoy spots of luxury, including elaborate ironwork and moldings, elegantly carved banisters and marble fireplace mantels.

The hostel will open with 44 beds - which, MacLeod said, is quite small. Washington's hostel has 270 beds, while New York City's boasts 650.

Occupancy goal

If it can sustain at least 30 percent occupancy, MacLeod said the hostel will be successful. Even so, he expects it will run at a deficit for the first several years until people realize it's there.

The hostel, which will be open to people of all ages, will prohibit alcoholic beverages and smoking. Officials are considering a curfew, which many hostels have.

"We're attempting to create a scene, but a healthy scene," said MacLeod, a guitarist who has applied for the job managing the hostel. "So much of the experience is about meeting other people."

For the past few weeks, the hostel has been allowing guests in for something of a dry run. About 40 Boy Scouts from Long Island, N.Y., stayed there during a Maryland history tour, checking out sites such as Fort McHenry and the Constellation during the day and cooking themselves spaghetti in the hostel's kitchen at night.

Dave Hellekson, who runs a Wisconsin-based cycling business, recently held a training conference at the hostel. Though he typically chooses hotels for such events, he said the hostel prices allowed some people to attend who ordinarily wouldn't have been able to afford it.

"Even a Holiday Inn is gonna cost you $140 a night. This goes a long way," Hellekson said. "I can see where it totally makes sense."

Baltimore advocates are happy to see the city reclaim its hostel.

"A hostel is one of those things that all great cities should have," said Mike Evitts, spokesman for the Downtown Partnership. "They couldn't be in a better position to take advantage of the projected influx of tourists to the Basilica."

Near the Basilica

The Basilica of the Assumption, which reopened in November after a $32 million restoration, is just across the street from the hostel - and will be the view for any travelers who get a room at the front of the house.

Mark J. Potter, executive director of the Basilica Trust Inc., said he's looking forward to working with the hostel organizers.

"It's a great location for them - right next to a national historic landmark. And for us, it's great to have just one more group of visitors that can walk right over and add to the thousands that are already coming."

Since the Basilica - which is the nation's first cathedral - reopened, between 45,000 and 50,000 people have visited, Potter said. It has already scheduled more than 200 tours for spring and early summer.

There are about 75 Hostelling International hostels in the United States.

After taking a major hit from Sept. 11 and from other events that have inhibited international travel, such as the SARS outbreak in 2003, the national hostel movement is only now beginning to stabilize, said Bertus Tempelhoff, assistant director of operations for Hostelling International USA.

A major city opening like Baltimore's is a big deal in hostelling, he said.

"It's great to see it coming back in a city like Baltimore," Tempelhoff said. "There's a lot of travelers on the East Coast, and it will be great if they can stop in Baltimore along the way."

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