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Cecil County expects unprecedented boost from Great Wolf Lodge

Just off Interstate 95 north of the Susquehanna River in Perryville, a large sign marks the entrance to Chesapeake Overlook, where a winding road leads down a hill to a casino surrounded by parking lots and vacant land.

Ever since Hollywood Casino Perryville opened in 2010, officials in a county known for historic towns and rural flavor have envisioned the 150-acre parcel as an entertainment hub, drawing visitors and residents alike to not only play the slots but to shop, eat at restaurants, go to movies and stay in hotels.

That vision now may be nearer to reality, thanks to a close to finalized deal, announced Monday, to bring a Great Wolf Lodge to the Cecil County site. The $200 million indoor water park and hotel is expected to help raise the profile of a sometimes overlooked county on the edge of the Baltimore metro area as it seeks to attract residents and businesses.

“This is a game changer for a number of reasons,” Cecil County Executive Alan McCarthy said. “This will be a great addition for quality of life. With a major conference center, hotel rooms, water park, this will be a destination for people to come from the entire eastern seaboard… It will allow Cecil County to show itself off. This is a lovely area that has not been exposed or highly advertised.”

If the deal is clinched, Great Wolf Resorts would build a 500-room resort on 44 acres next to the casino, creating 450 to 600 permanent jobs and as many as 1,000 construction jobs. The resort, expected to be completed by the summer of 2022, could draw nearly a half million tourists a year, add to and help diversify the county’s tax base and drive more visitors to the casino, where gaming revenue dipped nearly 6 percent in November.

The Chicago-based resort developer, a growing operator of indoor water parks with 19 locations across the United States, acknowledged the company has been in “preliminary” talks with Perryville and Cecil County officials about the potential for a future Great Wolf Lodge. Company spokesman Jason Lasecki called the site a “nice fit” but would not confirm the project will be built.

Great Wolf resorts typically hire as many as 600 people for year-round jobs, with more hiring during peak summer and spring break periods, Lasecki said. Visitors typically drive between two to four hours to visit.

“This will bring additional tourist dollars to local gas stations, restaurants and retail operations,” he said. “Local businesses surrounding our resorts in the past have indicated a business increase between 20-30 percent after a Great Wolf Lodge resort opened.”

Cristan Miller, a 38-year-old Perryville native, said she and her family stayed at a Great Wolf resort in the Poconos and would welcome a similar resort closer to home.

“It would be something that I would do,” said Miller, mother of a 10-year-old daughter and 22-year-old son. “There’s nothing for kids to do around here. I think it’s a wonderful idea.”

A deal with the resort would continue a string of economic development wins for the county, which has landed huge distribution center operations for companies such as Amazon, grocery retailer Lidl and Restoration Hardware. More than 7 million square feet of new commercial space, mostly in the Principio Business Park, has come on line in the past couple of years, creating about 2,000 new jobs, McCarthy said.

Businesses have been attracted to the county’s interstate highway access and proximity to some of the biggest commercial markets on the East Coast.

For the Great Wolf deal, the county is proposing more than $8 million in tax incentives over 25 years, including a 50 percent credit on personal property tax, not to exceed $4.5 million, and a waiver of the county’s five percent fee on hotel tax administration. A public hearing is scheduled for Jan. 15 with a vote expected Feb. 5. The town of Perryville also will consider tax incentives.

Such a project almost certainly would benefit the casino, the first of the Maryland’s six to open, experts said, generating a flow of visitors staying in the area for days as opposed to hours.

It could be “an innovative promotion for Hollywood Perryville to connect to a Great Wolf Lodge,” said James R. Karmel, a professor of history at Harford Community College and an independent gaming analyst. “Great Wolf Lodge is an up-and-coming, popular option for a lot of families, so I think it’s creative marketing… It’s an unusual type of thing for the East Coast. Usually it’s Las Vegas where you have the family tie-in to gaming.”

But it makes sense, he said. Great Wolf Lodge resorts are growing in popularity and casino operators increasingly build or partner with nearby amenities to attract gamblers for longer stays.

“It could really help Hollywood Perryville get more of a market in Maryland,” he said.

Hollywood Casino managers have been in touch with the resort developer and would welcome the addition to the area, said Matthew Heiskell, Perryville casino’s general manager.

“They are going to bring a unique set of visitors to that area, families and people looking to spend time there for greater than a few hours,” he said.

As plans develop, the casino likely would look at ways to adapt to handle families in some way. For instance, its restaurant currently is only open to those aged 21 or older.

“We need to think about other amenities we may need to add,” he said. “It’s an exciting time for us.”

Perryville resident Kelly Keim, who works for a catering company in Baltimore County’s Glyndon, was heartened to hear of a possible resort near her home. Besides expanding entertainment options for residents, she said, it could attract more retailers and help business at the casino.

“Every time I go there, there’s not a whole lot of people there, and it kind of worries me because they put so much money into it, and I’d hate to see it close up,” Keim said. And, “I’d like to see a lot more shopping in this area instead of having to go out to North East or down to Aberdeen.”

But some residents worry about the impact of such a large project on already congested main routes and two-lane roads and worry about an influx of tourists further changing the county.

Andrea and Allen Erickson moved from Dundalk to Port Deposit in Cecil County more than a decade ago for a home in a more rural, private setting

“I’ve seen a lot of changes,” Andrea Erickson said Tuesday as the couple headed into the Perryville Food Lion. “The area is becoming much more heavily populated.”

While a big resort would be a good job generator, she said, “I don’t think the general population in the community would be able to afford the resort on any kind of a regular basis. It’s pretty expensive.”

Her husband questioned whether visitors would be a boon to local businesses or “would they just get off 95, hit the spot and hop back on 95, and the only money they spend is what they spend at the resort, not in the town?”

Economist Anirban Basu, CEO of Sage Policy Group, has begun an analysis of the economic implications of the deal for the town of Perryville. He sees local officials’ wooing of Great Wolf as a continuation of a successful economic development strategy.

“The folks in Cecil County are really serious about economic development,” despite obstacles such as Perryville’s separation from the rest of the state by a major toll on Interstate 95, he said.

“If there’s a Great Wolf Lodge,” he said, “there would be plenty of reasons to pay that toll and be in Perryville.”

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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