The two dozen bidders were lured to the auction by the opportunity to own a year-old, well-built motel in Indian Head, a town 20 miles south of Washington that many attendees called the last undeveloped stretch in the metropolitan area.

Indian Head's mayor and town manager showed up for different reasons.

Their town's hopes for survival were pinned to this auction--not the sale of the vacant motel itself, but what that move would mean. A new buyer would answer a question that has drawn few takers in the last two years: Who is willing to take a chance on Indian Head?

In the midst of an economic boom in Southern Maryland, Indian Head has struggled. While builders tussle with commissioners in the race for development rights on open spaces in Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's counties, Indian Head has barely grown. In the last three years, seven new homes have gone up in the Charles County town on the Potomac. In the county seat of La Plata less than 15 miles to the east, more than 18 times as many--128--have been built in the same period.

Some of the staples of Indian Head community life--the barbershop, a florist, Old Frank's clothing shop and Super Fresh, the last grocery in town--have closed or moved on in search of greener pastures.

"The town is dead," pronounced Cary Drinkard, 63, an Indian Head native and owner of C&D's Carry Out, a 40-year fixture on the community's commercial strip along Route 210 (Indian Head Highway). "It hurts me real bad. You look back at it, all the missed opportunities. We have a lot of work to do."

So town officials and residents turned out for the auction on a recent morning to see who might join in that work, who might find an opportunity others had overlooked.

That person turned out to be Nick Patel. He and several family members, who own half a dozen motels around Prince George's County, didn't want to talk about their purchase. But Patel's final bid for the former Super 8--$1.12 million--said a lot. True, it was less than townspeople had expected, but enough to renew hope at lunch counters and the beauty shop when word spread throughout Indian Head's 4,000 residents.

A combination of bad luck and bad decisions has left Indian Head at a crossroads. It's a town weary of economic pitfalls but willing to fight for its future. Leaders have bold plans--complete with ways to obtain most of the funding--to turn Indian Head's charmless facade into a quaint, pedestrian-friendly boutique area, drawing visitors with its renowned bass fishing and rustic aura.

The mayor is talking cobblestones and old-fashioned street lamps. A dinner train through 13 miles of countryside. More pristine waterfront property and perhaps a river jet. The state has already committed $1 million to the streetscaping and related plans that would spruce up the Village Green. Although these notions sound fanciful to some residents, Town Manager Ken McLawhorn knows they are more than just worthwhile experiments.

"It's crucial. It's everything," McLawhorn said. "It's imperative for us to succeed."

Indian Head, 800 acres on a peninsula between the Potomac River and Mattawoman Creek, is a place whose fate has been inextricably linked to the Naval Surface Warfare Center, a century-old base that has weathered its own share of difficulties lately: layoffs, union allegations of unfair labor practices, the sudden death of its popular director and the loss of its explosive ordnance disposal school, which eliminated 300 active-duty jobs. More town-Navy partnerships are helping both the base and Indian Head, said base spokeswoman Chris Adams.

She points out the excursion train idea. A private company with a similar operation in Pennsylvania has leased the Navy-owned tracks and, starting at the end of this month, patrons will board a 1950s-era train and travel 13 miles through scenic wetlands along Mattawoman Creek to White Plains. Some younger residents are already saving up for tickets, but Indian Head's mostly older residents are skeptical of the idea and resent the traffic that tourists would bring. When town historian Dorothy Artes first heard about the idea, she laughed.

"It just isn't Indian Head," she said, arguing that her beloved town doesn't need a fancy face lift to survive. "For all that we didn't have in the way of finesse and sophistication, we knew kindness and how to get along with others."

But kindness doesn't pay taxes or build homes. So officials have set about transforming Indian Head from a decaying base town to a pretty little burg that could remain viable even without the base, Charles County's largest employer. It's not unheard-of for a town to completely reinvent itself, said Steven D. Soifer, associate professor at the University of Maryland's School of Social Work. Soifer, who has published several articles about community organizing, said Indian Head's success will depend on "clear, bold ideas able to capture not only the imagination of the people who live there, but the imagination of people around the town."

"And then they have to be able to market it," he added.

That's where Evie Hungerford comes in. "This town needs a purpose," she declared matter-of-factly from behind her desk at Hungerford Associates, the advertising and public relations firm she owns just outside her native Indian Head. Hungerford heads the town's Economic Development Council and advises McLawhorn and Mayor Warren Bowie on ways to make Indian Head interesting to outsiders.

First, there's the access: a four-lane highway that leads straight to the Capital Beltway, touted as the least-crowded way to Washington. Then there's the water: Talks are underway to procure more property on the Potomac and to expand boat ramps at Mattingly Park on the picturesque Mattawoman Creek. Hungerford envisions a Navy museum, souvenir shops and jaunts to the nearby Mattawoman Creek Art Center.

"This place is just so on the verge," Hungerford exuded, although she was miffed that the town received barely a mention at Charles County's annual economic summit last month.

Hairstylist Sue Posey is one business owner tired of watching town officials launch ambitious plans only to "get knocked down." She is weary of longtime residents who oppose growth and is eager to see the town one day in all its cobbled-street glory.

"It's worth a try if they want to keep the town alive," she said, washing a client's hair in her cozy little shop along Indian Head Highway.

Carlos P. Todd, a retired Oxon Hill resident, had the tiny pier at Mattingly Park to himself one recent afternoon. It was a lovely, tranquil day on the creek, with still water and clear skies. Todd has fished at this spot for four years and looks forward to the town's planned $50,000 ramp refurbishing and pier extension, even if it means more competition for the creek's bass, crappie, perch and carp.

"When people ask me where I caught the fish, I tell them 'Indian Head,' and they ask 'Where's that?' " Todd laughed. "But this place has plenty of potential."

CAPTION: Carlos P. Todd fishes at Mattingly Park on Mattawoman Creek. "This place has plenty of potential," he said.

CAPTION: Jeff Cates auctions off what used to be a Super 8 motel on Route 210. It sold for $1.12 million, leading residents to hope the area is finally on the upswing.

CAPTION: Joyce Hanson, center, has her hair done at Sue Posey's shop. Posey is tired of watching town officials launch ambitious plans only to "get knocked down."