The neon shines on in Bel Alton

Motel celebrates 50th anniversary

Friday, Aug. 10, 2007

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Staff Photo by Carrie Lovejoy
Kathy Pings, owner of the Bel Alton Motel, is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the motel this year. Her parents bought the motel in December 1957.

Fred and Julie Roumbanis know a thing or two about motels.

The couple and their baby boy, Jackson, travel the country nine months out of the year competing in bass tournaments from the East Coast to the West Coast, and when they come to Charles County, they go to the Bel Alton Motel.

‘‘Of all the stops we have, they’re the friendliest,” said Fred of the staff at the Bel Alton and owner Kathy Pings.

Several of the participants in this weekend’s BASS Elite Tournament are staying at the motel, taking advantage of the surprising amount of security that Pings has installed especially for them.

‘‘They call us the good luck motel,” Pings said of the fishermen who come back each year.

And now Pings is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the motel, along with 50 years she has spent working there, first as a child helping out her parents and later as the owner.

The motel is right on U.S. 301 in Bel Alton, its pool easily visible to passersby, even going 65 or 70 miles per hour. Its neon signs are a throwback to its days of the 1950s, and Pings and her boyfriend, Pat Fabrizio, want to keep the neon around.

‘‘We try to keep the look of the old days,” Fabrizio said. And keep it they do.

The motel revels in its outdated look, with black-and-white tile, chrome and square bathtubs. There are black toilet seats, and the telephones are shiny black.

‘‘Everybody says it’s like going back in time,” Pings said.

One thing has definitely changed, though. A one-bed room for one or two people now costs $54 plus tax, for a total of $59.40. When Pings was a child, she said there was a flashing neon sign that advertised the price of a room: $5.

Pings said the original owner was a builder who used all the best materials because he wanted to run the motel himself. That has paid off for Pings and her parents, who have had relatively little trouble with the building. There are always small issues, of course, and those are what make up the daily routine for her, as well as taking care of the customers who are constantly walking in, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Ping said she rarely takes time away from the motel, and actually lives on the site in the same apartment above the motel that she has occupied since December 1957, when she was 5 and her parents, Charles and Isabella Brunnabend, bought the property.

Pings said the motel was a failing business when her father decided to buy it. At a quick trip to a gas station shortly after he put the deposit down to buy the motel, Pings said Charles told the attendant he had just purchased a motel.

‘‘He said, ‘I hope it’s not the Bel Alton. That’s the graveyard of the courts,’” Pings said. Her parents hesitated and wondered if they should change their minds, but they decided to try to make it work. The motel was only 5 years old at the time, but it was overgrown with weeds and did not look very nice. But the Brunnabends cleaned it up and turned it into a successful business.

Pings spent her childhood at the motel, helping customers with ice or towels and showing them to their rooms. She followed her father around every chance she got and learned to repair everything in the motel. The neon lights, though, require outside help. She can take them off the stands by herself, but she takes them off site to be repaired.

‘‘I can repair anything, but I can’t cook a lick,” Pings said with a laugh.

Now, Pings said many of her customers call it the motel with all the cats. Most of her business is from repeat customers, and she’ll occasionally get a phone call asking, ‘‘Is this the place with the cats?”

Cats are all over the place on the property. They wander the grounds, hanging out under bushes in the shade or in the office. Fabrizio said one cat, Jake, will wander into clients’ rooms and watch television with them. The cats are incredibly friendly and willing to be touched, apparently not bothered by the barrage of strangers in and out of the rooms. A sign warns drivers to watch for crossing cats in the parking lot.

Another pet lives in the office, keeping the employees company. A baby wild rabbit was found on the grounds about eight years ago, so Pings nursed it back to health; it now lives in a cage on the office floor.

Perhaps because of features like the rabbit, or the cats, or the leather couches showing signs of wear, the office feels more like a living room than a motel lobby. There is a television entertainment center, pictures on the wood-paneled walls, and cacti in campy round pots.

Pings said she is picky when it comes to the upkeep of the motel, and she even goes behind a cleaning woman who has been working for her for 38 years to check her work. She’s confident the employee is doing a good job, but she has to check anyway.

Such a busy schedule keeps Pings close by the office, though. She has traveled some, always checking other motels under the beds to see if they have a quality cleaning staff. She said she doesn’t leave for long periods of time, though, and tries to pack as many activities as possible into short trips. Living above that office for 50 years, Pings has not needed to leave the county to have her share of life experiences.

‘‘I’ve seen it all and heard it all,” she said. Decades ago, Earl’s Truck Stop was across the street, and the area was hopping with business for slot machines. ‘‘They used to call 301 the Las Vegas strip.”

Over the years, Pings’ friends have come and gone and aged along with her and the motel. She said she has customers now who were once her playmates, brought by their parents on vacations. They bring their own children and grandchildren to the Bel Alton.

Couples come back year after year, and sometimes a husband or wife eventually comes in alone. Just this week, an elderly woman was crying in the lobby and Pings asked what was wrong. The woman said she was being flooded with memories of coming to the motel with her husband, who had recently died.

‘‘Some will ask for the same room they had with their spouse,” Pings said.

There are some customers who made friends at the motel years ago and come back at the same time each summer to be with the same people. A former secretary of the U.S. Navy used to rent the entire motel on the Fourth of July to have a party there.

Another man, who just came in last month, was amazed that Pings remembered him. He hadn’t been to the motel in 15 years. He and his wife had come to the county to eat crabs and check out some of their old favorite places.

‘‘They remembered the motel and the good times they had,” Pings said. ‘‘He was so tickled that I remembered him.”

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