The Chesapeake Hyatt Regency Resort

The Chesapeake Hyatt Regency Resort features a golf course, nature preserve, marina and spa. (Sun photo by Doug Kapustin)

CAMBRIDGE - They said it couldn't be done. They said no one would take an early-1900s mental hospital and put up a $155 million resort in its place. Mainly, they said no one would risk building such a swanky thing in the middle of economically depressed Cambridge, a gas-station-stop of a town.

But six years and three frustrating delayed openings later, the 400-room Chesapeake Hyatt Regency Resort opened its doors to all the skeptics yesterday morning to show off its 18-hole golf course, 150-slip marina, 18-acre nature preserve, four pools and European health spa on the edge of the Choptank River.

The luxury resort will not only draw tourists from Baltimore, Washington and other nearby cities to Cambridge, state and hotel officials said, but also serve as the critical economic engine that Dorchester County needs to reverse years of decline, high unemployment and industry flight.

"What an exciting day," said Gov. Parris N. Glendening to a boisterously cheering crowd of 300 community and business leaders standing in front of a backdrop of the Frederick C. Malkus Jr. Bridge, sailboats and an emerald-green 18th hole. "Just a few years ago, we announced that this would be more than just a resort. We committed ourselves that this would be a destination. ... There were some doubters, some naysayers.

"But we're here to tell them they were wrong. We're here to show everybody it can be done, has been done and our commitment has been honored."

The Chesapeake Hyatt has created more than 300 jobs, three-quarters of which were filled by local residents. In its second phase of development, resort officials hope to add 450 townhouses and single-family homes on its 342 acres, bringing another 300 to 400 more jobs to the area.

Twenty-eight groups have been booked to stay at the resort in September and 32 are scheduled for October, said General Manager Michael T. Walsh. A credit managers' seminar is expected to occupy 325 rooms Sept. 9 and a Washington law firm will reserve the entire resort and some surrounding hotels in March, Walsh said.

About 86 people, mostly from the local area, checked in after the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

"I feel good," said Thomas A. Flowers, president of the county's board of commissioners, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. "I feel it in my bones. This is a community on the move. Dorchester is on the move, this glorious morning. Everybody wants to invest in Cambridge and Dorchester County. I tell you, it's a good feeling."

Flowers also praised the state, Hyatt Hotels and Resorts Corp. of Chicago, Washington-based Quandrangle Development Corp. and Clark Enterprises of Bethesda for taking the risk on the complicated project.

Besides having to move the old Eastern Shore Hospital to a new location and lining up the financing to buy the waterfront property from the state, hotel officials said, the project has endured contract disputes and a threatened mechanic's lien while seeing its opening pushed back from Dec. 1 to March 1 to June 1. The lien was dropped in May as the construction firms and the quasi-public Maryland Department of Economic Development Corp., which financed and owns the hotel, agreed to finish the project.

"We've got 205 hotels in 36 different countries," said Nick Pritzker, chairman and president of Hyatt Development Corp. "This one is special. I won't say that it's been an easy delivery, but we have a beautiful baby here."

Evidence of those complications was nowhere to be found yesterday as dozens of newly trained Hyatt employees scampered around polishing banisters and picking lint off the plush carpeting.

Uga Moaney and Constance Lewis, Hurlock residents who used to assemble motors for electric drills at the Black & Decker Corp. plant, arrived at 8 a.m. to make sure each room was spotless with a professionally made bed and a supply of soaps, lotions and shampoos.

"We feel super ... and proud," said Lewis, who for the past couple of months, along with the rest of the housekeeping staff, has been down on her hands and knees, scrubbing floors, sweeping dust and cleaning the debris left over from construction crews to prepare the hotel.

Outside, T.J. Owens and Christopher Gibbs were setting up green lounge chairs with matching cushions beside a pool.

"This really gives the economy a boost," said Gibbs, a Salisbury resident who works for Reno, Nev.-based Cooperative Installation, the company hired to install all the furniture in the hotel. "Most of the people who work here are all local. This place actually does something nice with the waterfront here. It brings a touch of class to the area. And that's a really good thing."