Western Maryland promoters link economic growth to golf

ROCKY GAP STATE PARK — ROCKY GAP STATE PARK -- He doesn't know exactly wher it will be, but Mort Peskin can imagine himself standing on the first tee of the fervently hoped-for Jack Nicklaus signature golf course here.

Mr. Peskin has played a lot of America's celebrity courses: places such as Pebble Beach on Big Sur in California, Doral's Blue Monster in Florida and the Tournament Players Club courses in Arizona.


The new links at Rocky Gap -- sculpted into a striking landscape of evergreens and tracing the lakeshore -- could hardly fail to challenge any of these famous venues, he is certain.

A man whose Cadillac bumper sticker says, "If You Like the Way I Drive You Should See Me Putt," Mr. Peskin thinks the Nicklaus course will not only elevate the level of golf in Maryland -- but remake the Western Maryland economy.


The Nicklaus name, resonating in the councils of corporate convention planners all over the country, could trigger the big break these mountains need, the 63-year-old department store owner says.

"This is the catalyst that will do it for us," said Delegate Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany, the project's most ardent booster. "You'll have some high rollers in here seeing Western Maryland for the first time. They'll see it as a place to locate a plant or build a home."

And yet, as always, the promise seems to be receding.

In 1988, Gov. William Donald Schaefer convinced the General Assembly to provide $7.5 million for the golf course -- but only if private interests would pay for the 240-room lodge and convention center that would be part of the complex.

With the rest of Maryland's economy suddenly almost as slack as Western Maryland's, Mr. Taylor and others were still able to pull together $6.5 million of the $10 million they need. But there the capital formation effort stalled.

At the same time, the golf course began to look like a luxury in Annapolis. The governor and the legislature, forced to cut programs of immediate benefit to people, found themselves unable to protect $7.5 million for a golf course.

Nevertheless, Mr. Taylor won promises for restoration of the money if the $3.5 million can be found soon enough. Mr. Taylor remains confident.

The original investors remain solidly committed despite the economic difficulties they face.


And once again, he said late last week, new investor interest is emerging. He said he could not be more specific now.

For a generation or more, Maryland's corner of Appalachia has waited for the magical turning point, the uplifting government project or program, the catalytic idea that would throw open the mountains to robust trade and tourism.

Allegany and Garrett counties have been places where unemployment -- 11.4 percent in January -- runs at almost twice the statewide rate. Young people here are practically expected to leave in search of a future.

Out here, people have heard about economic turning points so often they feel they are meeting themselves coming around the corner.

At the Elks Lodge in downtown Cumberland, about five miles west of Rocky Gap, Bill Pugh had no trouble holding down expectations.

In recent years, he said, county and state governments have introduced several turning-point projects. A scenic railroad opened to tempt tourists, running between Cumberland and Frostburg. The name of Frostburg State College, Mr. Pugh's alma mater, was changed to Frostburg State University to add a bit of alluring class. Fancy day-care services were planned as an amenity for prospective new businesses. Talk persists of an enormous, coal-fired power generating plant.


"Everything was going to bring in more money," Mr. Pugh said. "So far, it isn't coming."

"In fact," he added, recalling the recent closing of the Kelly Springfield tire plant, "we've lost ground."

Mr. Peskin doesn't argue that point.

"We get one foot up, but we can't seem to get the other one over the fence," he said.

Mr. Pugh, a 68-year-old former schoolteacher, sat at one of many long, brown bingo tables on the second floor of the Elks Lodge. He and his friend, Ben Rhodes, considered the potential of Rocky Gap. With their club's membership at 723 and falling -- "No new blood," Mr. Rhodes said -- they would like to see it work out well. But they have their doubts.

"How many people are going to spend the kind of money they want?" he asked.


The course is billed as the only Nicklaus course open to the public, he observed, but the cost -- starting with a projected $30 greens fee -- will make it private, in effect. People will probably be required to rent a golf cart, for example, he said.

Anyone in the Elks Club who plays golf, he said, will keep driving the 30 or so miles to Bedford -- in Pennsylvania -- where they can play for what Mr. Pugh called a "reasonable" fee on the Elks' course.

Mort Peskin isn't surprised at the skepticism.

"I don't think it's for the Cumberland people. It's for the tourists. People don't understand that. They've got the me-me's -- what's in it for me," he said.

But if there's a high-quality layout, he insists, people will pay to play. "If you were visiting in California, you'd play Pebble Beach, wouldn't you?" he asked. "So it costs $150. You'd blow it, right?"

The corner-turning golf course would be a psychological winner for the people of the mountains as well as beyond, he says. People would begin to believe.


As for the world at large, Mr. Peskin says Western Maryland needs a way to enter the consciousness of tourists and golfers. He imagines a man in a downtown Baltimore or Washington office turning to a friend with this idea: "Let's go to Rocky Gap."

"It's not just building a new hotel or a new golf course," said James Oberhaus, the area's director of tourism. "It's creating a whole new attitude about this area."

Mr. Oberhaus and others say the impending completion of the National Freeway will help bring more flatlanders to the mountains.

The stretch of highway along Sideling Hill outside Hancock on the way to Cumberland -- also referred to as The Cut -- is an eye-popping addition to the list of mountain turning points: The new road will subdue the dangerous and time-consuming mountain roads it replaces, bring more truck traffic and more tourist traffic. It will make the area accessible from Washington and Baltimore.

If the golf course and convention center are built, Mr. Oberhaus said, "We'll look back at this the way Baltimore looks back at the Inner Harbor."

"It's a shame," he added, "if Marylanders don't step up with the money. It's sad if you don't believe in your own area."


As always, the project and the greater economic promise it represents tease the community at large.

"It fits in with a lot of the progress we're anticipating in the way of jobs, for making our a area more attractive for people to come in and visit," said Ray O. Metz, director of the Western Maryland Labor Council.

Mr. Metz and others think the golf course and the lodge will generate 300 to 400 full-time service sector jobs. Typically, for an pTC economy that trades high-paying manufacturing work for jobs in the service sector, the pay may not replace what has been lost, he says.

What Mr. Metz really banks on, though, is a new state prison with its projected $40 million annual payroll. From such a facility, he anticipates as many as 800 jobs paying from $22,000 to $40,000.

If the prison is built -- and that much seems more than a dream, more than another fading promise -- the local unemployment rate of 10 percent could go down a few percentage points.

A few of these workers would even be able to join Mort Peskin on the Jack Nicklaus signature golf course.


"It'd be nice if people could go out there," Mr. Metz said. "I guess if we get some good paying jobs, the people can go out and play a few rounds."