The town of North Beach is under construction. Everywhere in the tiny Calvert bayfront community these days, orange cones clog streets, sagging buildings are being flattened and jackhammers drown out the quiet lapping of the Chesapeake.
The up-and-down rhythm that has defined North Beach's economy for almost a century again is on the upswing. But this time, people in this hard-pressed beach town hope it's for keeps.
"It's beginning to go forward," said Richard Penfield, a florist who serves on the planning and parking commissions. "They tore down buildings that had been here since the '30s and were in really sad shape. Now we've got new sidewalks, new roads. I like to see the progress. When the town is successful, I'll be successful."
And new North Beach Mayor Mark R. Frazer, just six months into his administration, is leading the charge, from the cosmetics of designing a new town logo for the water tower to the substantial task of steadying the town's finances.
Frazer and the new Town Council have eliminated operating deficits, created municipal parking and a beach patrol, and condemned and demolished six buildings that gave the town a depressed image.
"They were hideous houses that had to be demolished. They looked like if you threw one match, they'd be goners," said Kathleen Boughman, the town's only real estate agent.
The small scale of North Beach -- about one square mile with about 900 homes -- makes its restoration feel almost like a game. The mayor can stand at the front door of town hall and point out changes he'd like to make as if rearranging pieces on a Monopoly board -- knock down that eyesore there, build a bike path here, create a playground over there.
But Frazer and the investors sinking money into North Beach are not fooling around.
"I've been hanging in here for 15 years, waiting for the right person to come along and lead the town," said Ron Russo, who has been buying up lots at a rapid clip for commercial and residential development. "For the first time, I feel like I've got to run and catch up with the mayor."
North Beach was once a rollicking resort town with dance halls, hotels and slot machines. The town, along with neighbor Chesapeake Beach, were summer getaways for folks from Baltimore and Washington. When the Chesapeake Bay bridge opened in 1952, the tourists started to thin. When the state outlawed slots in 1968, they disappeared.
Chesapeake Beach recovered by building high-end bayfront condominiums and encouraging the local sport fishing industry. North Beach struggled. Businesses opened and closed. With little commercial tax base, North Beach's property taxes and water and sewer fees climbed.
With help from Calvert County and the state earlier this decade, North Beach focused resources and energy on its most obvious asset -- the bay. It built a wide, wooden boardwalk alongside the bay and rebuilt its fishing pier. And it renovated Bay Avenue, the road that stretches along the boardwalk, adding sidewalks and quaint lighting and flower plantings. The town has one of only two public swimming beaches on this side of the bay.
Young professionals and retirees began eyeing North Beach, attracted by relatively low real estate prices and the opportunity to live along the bay less than an hour from Washington.
Frazer, a Prince Frederick dentist and two-term county commissioner, moved to North Beach from Chesapeake Beach three years ago and fell in love. "It's just a great, funky little place, where you can walk to everything and know most everybody," said Frazer, 57, who grew a sea captain's beard and lives in a house on the water with soothing bay vistas.
Frazer left county politics to run for mayor last November, promising to push North Beach to new heights. He believes the town's future is in environmental tourism -- making money from the bay. He easily defeated incumbent Daniel Hartley.
After his election, Frazer learned for the first time that there was a $171,000 deficit in the town's operating budget. Auditors blamed years of poor budgeting and spending habits and failure to collect fees due, as well as chaotic record-keeping. A building used to store documents had a leaky roof and was filled with water and rats. Seventy-five percent of North Beach's official records had to be thrown out, including invoices, billing records, police reports, archival material.
The new administration began collecting on debts and stopped the practice of using money from the general fund for capital projects, Treasurer Marcia Vaughn said. The budget approved for the current fiscal year is balanced.
Impressed by Frazer's new approach, Russo is rolling ahead with a range of projects. A developer with an eye for communities on the verge of redevelopment, Russo has created housing and retail complexes in Washington, Baltimore, Key West and Boston. He stumbled across North Beach 15 years ago and thought it had potential.
Russo has invested about $7 million in projects so far, often taking advantage of low-interest state loans for community redevelopment.
He built the 27-unit Baywalk, the town's first waterfront condominiums, in 1991 and plans another 64 units on adjoining land. Farther north on Bay Avenue, Russo built a small strip of commercial buildings, including space rented to the post office. He also owns the Bay Avenue building that houses Thursday's, a restaurant that doubled the number of eateries in town when it opened 14 months ago, and a parking lot across from it.
Russo owns three of the four corners at a key intersection in town, Chesapeake Avenue and Third Street. On one corner sits the 5,000-square-foot brick building that once housed the Pop Brown's furniture store -- the first business owned by the family that created the Marlo Furniture chain. Russo wants to restore the building.
Across from the town hall, Russo plans a three-story 49-unit apartment building for senior citizens. Next to the town hall, the town demolished its dilapidated town annex and leased the land to Calvert Memorial Hospital for an ambulatory care center, which would be North Beach's first medical facility.
Next to the health center, Russo wants to build a 20,000-square-foot retail center, with a gourmet market and other small shops.
"Right now, I'm having too much fun re-creating a town," he said.
Frazer, meanwhile, is focusing on filling vacant storefronts along Chesapeake and Bay avenues and redesigning the commercial district. The town is applying for a state grant to create a "streetscape" design for Bay Avenue, the road along the boardwalk. Vacant lots and empty storefronts now line the street.
"This is the most valuable commercial real estate in town with a view to die for," said Frazer, who envisions specialty shops, similar to the commercial heart of St. Michael's on the Eastern Shore. "It should be developed comprehensively, not parcel by parcel."
He also dreams of building an environmental education center allied with the Calvert Marine Museum, a bike trail through the wetlands north of town and boat slips along the fishing pier so that boaters can visit the town.
Not everyone is sold on such plans.
"I'm not sure there is a commercial market in this town," said John Scott Sr., who just built a 16-unit condominium at Dayton Avenue and Third Street and who buys houses, renovates and rents them. He owns about 30 such houses.
Scott doubts North Beach can attract enough visitors to sustain businesses. "Someone traveling from Calvert County to work in Baltimore, D.C. or Pax River isn't going through North Beach to get anywhere," Scott said. "North Beach is the end of the road."
Others worry a sudden building boom is harmful. "They're overexpanding; it's too fast," said Janet Bates, who lives in neighboring Holland Point and was recently shopping at North Beach's only supermarket. "It's still a rather small town and, environmentally, all this building is bad for the bay."
Still others worry that North Beach will become overdeveloped, with housing eating up premium waterfront land. "I don't want to see town houses and condos take away the water, like in Chesapeake Beach," said Steve Wilson, 41, who bought a $76,000 inland home five years ago. "I hope that never happens here. When people come down here, they want to see the bay."
Boughman, the real estate agent, said it is unlikely new condos or town houses will crowd the waterfront because there is little room to build new housing. While the housing market is beginning to bubble, prices have not caught up yet, Boughman said. They range from about $69,000 for a modest cottage to about $250,000 for a waterfront home, she said. "We're just sort of catching up," she said, describing the market. "As we look better, things will heat up."
Her husband, "Sonny," runs the family-owned Neptune's, one of the two restaurants in town. "I can't believe how nice the homes are," he said, comparing the town to when he first arrived 14 years ago. "The more people move in, the better off I am. They have to eat somewhere."
CAPTION: New North Beach Mayor Mark R. Frazer, above, moved to the bayside town three year ago and says he fell in love. "It's just a great, funky little place."
CAPTION: Illinois tourists Mercedes Austin, 18 months, above, and her mother, Rebecca Austin, play near the lapping Chesapeake in North Beach. At left, the edge of town bordering Anne Arundel County has a welcoming sign.