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Issue Date: November 2012

Wandering Mind

Mark Raymond traveled the world, feeding a big appetite for adventure on a small budget. Now he's hoping to put the city on the map for cost-conscious travelers both near and far with the Cleveland Hostel.
John Hitch

Adam Duchemin has topsoil smeared across his sunburned brow and cheek, earthy scars left from a long day working on an urban farm on the city's near East Side. He's earned the beer and the view he's enjoying on this cloudless and warm Friday evening in late August.

Looking out from the rooftop patio across Ohio City, the downtown skyline and its centerpiece, the Terminal Tower, stand in the distance. An emerald streak of trees rise up along the curl of the Cuyahoga River, giving the 31-year-old from Grand Rapids, Mich., a vista most locals don't get to enjoy.

"Is there a better view in the city?" asks Duchemin, sipping from a 24-ounce can of Milwaukee's Best before answering his own question. "Doubt it."

Since early July, he and his friend, Mike Tolliver, have called Ohio City home. The men volunteer 20 to 25 hours a week at several urban farms for a program called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Thanks to grant funding from the Cleveland-based nonprofit Neighborhood Progress Inc., they've stayed at the new Cleveland Hostel most of that time, even before it was officially open to the public. After almost two months, the men are impressed, not only by the West Side Market located a block away or the neighborhood's wealth of bars and restaurants, but also by the accommodations themselves.

"I've been in hostels around the world," says Duchemin. "The owner seems like he knows what he's doing."

It's easy to be skeptical about the idea of a hostel in Ohio City. Many people think of them as bare-bones overnight accommodations fit only for desperate college kids on vacation or backpacking vagabonds — people who don't mind sharing bunk beds and bathrooms with complete strangers. But with rates of $25 a night, Cleveland's 60-bed hostel provides travelers with even the most frayed shoestring budget a decent place to crash.

Most rooms consist of four bunk beds, lockers and a small desk. Bathrooms are down the hall. During its first official week of business, Aug.17-24, the hostel welcomed 75 guests from five continents. By the end of September, it had hosted more than 700 travelers.

The converted furniture warehouse has a laid-back vibe and a warm, welcoming feel from the minute one walks through the door. On a summer afternoon, the scent of butter and popcorn from the neighboring Campbell's Sweets Factory greets guests in the lobby, as does a soft-coated wheaten terrier named Kyla who timidly pads across the old hardwood followed by another shy, shaggy dog of sorts — the hostel's owner, Mark Raymond.

A quiet kid who grew up fascinated by downtown Cleveland, the now-31-year-old started traveling with his family in his teens and later by himself, visiting dozens of countries before returning home and opening his Ohio City respite for fellow wanderers.

Sporting a shoulder-length mess of pale blond hair and a patch of sandy whiskers on his face, Raymond reaches behind the counter — a salvaged wooden door with brochures for local attractions stacked neatly on top — and grabs a bundle of linens and a key card.

It's around dusk and the rooms are all empty. Raymond explains that's a good thing. It means his guests are out exploring the neighborhood and spending money. His idea is a simple one, and its benefit to Cleveland as a whole and Ohio City in particular are obvious: Create a place in a cool neighborhood where those with a taste for adventure, particularly young people, can stay on the cheap.

"Hostel travelers tend to go out and eat dinner or have a drink," Raymond says. "They have more money because they spend less on accommodations. Without the hostel, they might not have ever come."

Raymond has traveled to more than 70 countries and estimates he's stayed in more than 100 hostels. Now he lives in one. His apartment on the Cleveland Hostel's third floor is filled with piles of clothes and cardboard boxes spilling over with household goods. The trade-off for clean and orderly guest rooms seems to be a rather chaotic personal space.

His loud yellow T-shirt, khaki cargo shorts and sandals scream carefree beach bum, but a thin pair of glasses frame a sharp set of eyes as deep and blue as the underside of an iceberg. Initially quiet and formal, Raymond warms up when talking about distant lands and overseas adventures.

There are no pictures on his walls, but the view of the Terminal Tower framed by his living room window is better than any photograph. His mom once told him that for a kindergarten Thanksgiving project, he chose the city's iconic Beaux Arts skyscraper as the thing for which he was most thankful.

"It was an event coming to the city, and the Terminal Tower was the center, the symbol of Cleveland," says the Geneva, Ohio native. "It made a big impression on me."

There was always something new to experience downtown. The family ice skated at Public Square and window-shopped at Higbee's at Christmas. They visited the zoo and took in Tribe games at Municipal Stadium during the summer.

Raymond romanticizes rusty old '80s Cleveland when he talks about it. Maybe that's because, even as a kid, he saw the complete picture as he peered out from the Terminal Tower's 42nd-floor observation deck. "You see the good parts and the bad, the beautiful lake and the piles of coal," he says. "Nothing is hidden."

His family took trips to Toronto and Chicago, but it was never enough. He wanted to see more. His mother, who hitchhiked across Europe during a semester abroad, had always made it a point to teach Raymond and his older sister, Allison, about foreign cultures, to give them an appreciation and understanding of others' beliefs and traditions.

While Raymond was still in preschool, international students would stay at the house for a few days at a time through a Rotary Club program. In 1994, a German foreign exchange student named Tim Ernst stayed with the family for a whole semester. Ernst's accounts of European life and locales spurred Raymond to reach for the encyclopedia. Hearing stories and studying maps didn't scratch his itch. He wanted to see other city's icons such as Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower first-hand, not just read about them.

"If you really want to experience something, you have to see it for yourself and interact with people to have an uninterrupted view of things," Raymond says.

He got his chance the following year, when Ernst's family reciprocated the kindness by inviting Raymond's family to Europe. Mark's father — the president of the family business, Raymond Builders Supply — stayed home to work, but the rest of them toured London, Paris and Cologne, Germany. Raymond enjoyed the landmarks, but he was equally attracted to the simpler aspects of travel, such as reading London's Evening Standard or strolling through tranquil Parisian parks.

"Actually seeing in person the places I read about or heard about in the news made me realize there's a lot of other places out there that I needed to visit."

As a teenager, Raymond quickly became a travel pro. When the family planned a return to Europe in 1997, the usually soft-spoken and contemplative 16-year-old aggressively insisted he make all the travel arrangements.

"My friends looked at me like I had completely lost my mind," says his mother, Kay Raymond. "I had faith in him though. He put together a great itinerary for us. It was awesome."

The teen had found a powerful new travel tool in the Internet and planned a trip that took the family to Rome and Munich. By age 18 he wanted to go it alone, but his mother wouldn't budge, no matter how responsible he was. The compromise was that Allison, who was a few years older, would travel with him.

Again, Raymond planned every detail of the trip. To see as much as possible, they stretched their money by staying almost exclusively at European hostels. Raymond recalls being attracted to their first stop, St. Christopher's on London's south side, because of its reasonable price and great location. The narrow, four-story hostel made of mismatching brick patchwork had been a coaching inn during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and its location near where London Bridge crosses the Thames couldn't have been any better.

That doesn't mean there weren't details of their stay that were less than ideal, including the lack of air conditioning on sweltering June nights and the quality of the bathrooms.

"Sometimes you didn't know if you were going to get cleaner taking a shower or not," Allison recalls with a laugh.

Despite the less-attractive aspects of the accommodations, Raymond says he remembers feeling camaraderie with his fellow travelers who were also bunking down for the evening.

"We kind of kept to ourselves and weren't too talkative, but [we] saw there were other people like us trying to see the world on a budget," he says. "That was kind of comforting."

Raymond and his sister ventured east to Switzerland and beyond. He estimates they stayed at 10 hostels during the monthlong trip, meeting hostelers who readily gave advice on lesser-known sites and shops to see.

After hiking the ruins in Athens, the hostel owner, who knew that Raymond and his sister's next stop was Istanbul, informed him of a 7.6 magnitude earthquake that had struck there that morning.

Raymond arranged a plane change and headed for their next destination, Sarajevo — a city that had been decimated by the nearly four-year Bosnian War in the early 1990s. He wanted to see for himself what he had only heard about in his high school history class.

What he and his sister encountered there was shocking. Specters of the destruction surrounded them, from the makeshift airport to the obliterated nearby neighborhood.

"The only thing left was the masonry," Raymond recalls, "just the skeletons of the buildings."

While Raymond and his sister had frequently strayed off the usual paths in each new city they visited, here they were warned to stay on the sidewalks in order to avoid land mines left over from the war. The blood-red resin that filled the clusters of mortar craters — known as "Sarajevo roses" — bloomed everywhere, while gaunt old women in tattered dresses sold wild flowers for loose change.

"It was a complete war zone," says Raymond, recalling how he felt seeing those images of death and destruction at age 18. "And the world population doesn't even care."

Coming back from that trip, Raymond was a changed man — more outgoing, adventurous and civic-minded. The European architecture he encountered and the cities' use of space inspired him to get an urban planning degree. His wanderlust lured him 1,800 miles west, where he attended Arizona State University.

After graduation, Raymond seized an opportunity to work for a Scottsdale development company where he'd interned, but he quickly discovered that planning suburban sprawl wasn't what he wanted to do with his career. He lasted half a year.

"It was a good job, the boom times, but it wasn't what I was interested in," Raymond says. "I don't like when land gets wasted • developing for 50 years and then moving on to the next place."

Disenchanted, Raymond decided to "break out a little bit" and took a four-month trip around the world in 2004. He landed in Sweden and didn't step on another plane until he reached Singapore, thousands of miles later. He traveled across Mongolian plains and Malaysian sea towns by Trans-Siberian railroad, rickety truck, fishing boat and even kayak.

By May, Raymond was back home. When fall came, he traveled to Helsinki for a yearlong urban planning graduate program.

An avid skier since preschool, Raymond drifted to the snowy slopes of Utah in 2006, working more than three years as a ski lift foreman near Salt Lake City. He pushed himself physically, slaloming slopes and exploring crevasses across the Salt Flats and the Southwest.

During that time, he also went on several more trips overseas and visited dozens more hostels, sleeping on rooftops near the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Things always went according to his "see-the-world plan." Mostly. In 2007, he contracted strep throat in a Philippines village.

"I woke up and couldn't swallow, barely able to get out of bed," he recalls. "I realized, I gotta get out of here. Once I got to Manila, I knew I'd be OK."

But apparently even nomads get homesick. He missed his family and the comfort of stability. In 2010, Raymond returned to Northeast Ohio, this time with the intention of staying put. "It was nice to not have to worry about moving again and making new friends you see for a short time before moving on," he says. "Now I could establish roots."

He told his family that he planned to put all he'd learned on his travels to good use by opening a hostel in Cleveland. He realized his city had everything a seasoned traveler like him would want in a place to visit, except for an inexpensive place to bunk for the night.

Indianapolis and Detroit had hostels, but Northeast Ohio, which comprises roughly 2 million people and culturally significant stops — such as Severance Hall, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, and the Cleveland Museum of Art — had none.

"If there's not a hostel or cheap motel, I'm going to go to the next place," Raymond says, explaining his philosophy in picking destinations. Someone like him traveling through the United States would bypass Cleveland.

So when he saw a May 2010 article detailing Ohio City's need for an inexpensive place for out-of-towners to stay, he knew he had to talk with Ohio City Inc. executive director Eric Wobser.

"Mark came in like an angel, appearing out of nowhere to build this hostel," says Wobser, who was impressed by Raymond's passion, experience and business plan. The prospect of opening a successful hostel in the neighborhood was too good to pass up.

The next question was location. Raymond considered converting a house on Franklin Avenue, but nearby residents rejected the idea. After checking out a few other properties with his mom and sister, Raymond hit the abandoned warehouse jackpot.

Built in 1900 as the former Victor Tea Co., the three-story building at 2090 W. 25th St. had been relegated to storing surplus inventory from the furniture store next door.

Raymond knew what he wanted in a hostel, and his father knew the building principles to make it feasible. The space was a roomy, blank canvas that the father-and-son team knew they could transform. They installed new plumbing and built partitions to form the hostel's 15 rooms and Raymond's third-floor apartment. Wobser says MRN Ltd., which owns the property, offered favorable terms when the lease was signed in October 2011 because Raymond made a personal investment of more than $600,000. Ohio City Inc. helped him apply for grants, and the city's Storefront Renovation Program paid 40 percent of the cost for exterior remodeling and the big, blue neon sign hanging from the building's red brick facade.

The bunk beds, tables and refrigerators cost nothing. They were hand-me-downs appropriated by Ohio City Inc. from the Stanford House, a former hostel in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park that closed in 2008 and became a bed and breakfast in 2011. Wobser says he believes the hostel has given Ohio City its missing ingredient.

"It's a culture Mark Raymond has created in the neighborhood that was really missing before he opened," Wobser says. "It's attracting visitors who aren't coming to visit a specific place, but who want to soak in all the small, organic things that make Cleveland a great place."

It's tuesday in early September and Adam Duchemin and Mike Tolliver, the two urban farmers who have stayed at the Cleveland Hostel most of the summer, carefully clip ripe red peppers in a compact but efficiently plotted garden, located on a 5-acre tract off Columbus Avenue in Ohio City.

Erin Laffay, the co-owner of Erie's Edge Farm, appreciates the help preparing the semiweekly harvest and often gives the men vegetables as a gratuity. They usually end up sharing it with fellow travelers passing through Cleveland who are staying at the hostel too.

"I'm thinking about living here," Duchemin says.

Tolliver seconds the notion: "I feel there's a slight bit more positivity in Cleveland. It's a more progressive city."

Job openings at Cleveland Crops, which teaches developmentally disabled people about urban agriculture, have caught their attention. Both want to dig deeper into the sustainability industry.

"There's just this web of people here that makes you feel like anything is possible," Duchemin adds.

This is the Cleveland that Raymond prides himself on helping visitors discover. Acting as a quasi-concierge service for his guests, he's already thinking of new ways to make his hostel more attractive to travelers. He plans to rent bicycles for $15 a day to those who want to explore on two wheels — an option that will be made easier once the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge's new bike lanes are finished this month. One of his biggest allies is the city's relatively low cost of living.

"Even on less than $75 a day, you can enjoy yourself here," he says.

For his business to stay afloat, Raymond estimates he'll require 30 percent occupancy, or 20 guests a night. At this modest estimate (Hostelling International USA's 60 locations average 45 guests per night), the hostel would bring an additional $547,500 into the city if each guest spent $75 a day here.

"The hostel is a huge opportunity for us," says Lexi Hotchkiss, Positively Cleveland's director of communications. The city currently has $2 billion in new tourist-related investments underway, ranging from the Medical Mart to the Cleveland Museum of Art expansion. Plus, the recently expanded free downtown trolley routes and the addition of new signs at 44 key locations throughout the city will make getting around easier.

"I'm confident that when a visitor comes here, they're going to have a great experience," Hotchkiss says, adding the new trend in tourism is experiential travel — visitors immersing themselves in the local scene, not just seeing the typical tourist destinations. "The hardest part is getting them here. Once they're here, Cleveland sells itself, and that gets people talking."

Sam McNulty, the face and co-owner of Ohio City's Market Garden Brewery, Bier Markt, Bar Cento and Nano Brew, says he thinks the hostel is a perfect fit for internationally sophisticated travelers, even if it all it really offers is a bed, a towel and a clean bathroom.

"Ohio City is the amenity," he says. "We already have a ton of international flavor in the neighborhood. Now we're going to have the international people as well."

As quiet and unassuming as Raymond is, he's poised to be one of the city's newest liaisons to adventurous travelers who want to see what Cleveland is all about. It's not a stretch to foresee people from other countries going home and telling their friends about the West Side Market, Ohio City's great beer joints, the incredible food and the friendly, shaggy-haired guy who greeted them at the door.

Before they depart for the next new city, the Cleveland Hostel's visitors leave advice and comments in the guest book. It's page upon page of positive words for Cleveland and Raymond. But the appreciation often comes in action as well as words, which may be the biggest indication that both Raymond and the city are on to something good.

"The best compliment is when guests only book for a night and then want to stay a couple nights longer," Raymond says.

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