Western Maryland's economic past is locked away in the abandoned factories of the industrial giants which have left. The present seems to be repeating the past, as a Cumberland bakery employing 158 people may close down.
But the future is a different story, community leaders will tell you. The future is high-rolling business leaders coming to play golf at the luxurious Rocky Gap complex and deciding to move their businesses to Western Maryland.
The future is a work force with 1,200 well-paying, recession-proof jobs guarding inmates at a federal and a state prison.
This vision comes compliments of tax dollars. Nearly every single economic project in Western Maryland is government subsidized except one, and that's the one that nobody wants to talk about.
Western Maryland's future might be boiled down simply to a "three T" economy -- tourism, troublemakers and trash.
Bring the tourists and the troublemakers -- the prisoners, people say, and they'll provide a guaranteed employment base.
The only component that isn't government-driven is trash. A Pennsylvania waste management firm already building a landfill in Allegany County is offering to give the county more than a $1 million a year for just saying yes to out-of-state waste.
Defining what is Western Maryland is subjective, but one could argue that an economic line runs through the mountains from Allegany County west. Frederick County has experienced some of the fastest growth in the state, and while Washington County has had its share of problems, it has still been better off than its more rural western neighbors.
Garrett County, despite double-digit unemployment, has experienced economic growth in recent years with a slow but steady influx of tourists to Deep Creek Lake during the summer months. Winter has not been as good, though. The state's only ski resort, Wisp, is having financial problems and looking for the county to secure a $1 million federal grant to make a low-interest loan to Wisp owners.
While Allegany County's financial woes have been similar on paper, its problems have taken on a higher profile. The industrial plants that produced well-paying factory jobs -- the Celanese Corp., Pittsburgh Plate & Glass, and Kelly Springfield -- have shut down. The last dinosaur remaining, the Westvaco paper mill in Luke, which employs about 2,000 people, closed for a week this summer because of the recession. And just when people were starting to feel good about the future as Interstate 68 -- the road opening up Western Maryland to Baltimore and Washington east and the Ohio Valley west -- was dedicated last month, the news came about yet another employer, Schmidt Bakery in Cumberland, threatening to leave the area.
The mood is still upbeat, though, because backers of the Rocky Gap golf course found the last $2 million needed to fund the $46 million project, just a day before a state deadline to come up with the money. The state is a big backer of Rocky Gap -- at least $7 million worth. Allegany County is another major backer, with $3.5 million, meaning that this golf course and conference center, which will bring an estimated 250 tourist-related jobs to the area, is nearly 25 percent government funded.
"I think it's super," said Allegany County Commissioner John Stotler. "We'll be getting a lot of things in return. We'll own 17 percent of the conference center, with those profits coming back to the county. We'll get revenue from the hotel and motel tax. And it will bring in people from major corporations in town to play golf, and if we get lucky with them, some of them may relocate here."
But where has this happened? Where is it that people have come to vacation, looked around, and decided to move their businesses? Are industries flocking to Worcester County because of Ocean City? In Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains, another region that has built a tourism economy, people have moved in, but not jobs. The new residents travel nearly two hours each way to work in the nearby New York-New Jersey metropolitan area.
Officials respond that anything is better than the status quo. "When we are looking at an unemployment rate where people haven't worked for months, most of those folks who are out of work are looking forward to a time when they would be gainfully employed at the Rocky Gap Conference Center," said Allegany County Commissioner Adrienne Ottavianni.
Not nearly as flashy, but with probably far more impact for residents, is the coming corrections industry wave. Work is under way in Allegany County on a $3 million federal prison, which will create about 250 jobs, and an announcement is expected soon on a location in the county for a proposed $70 million state prison that would bring 1,000 jobs. Both obviously, are government projects.
Government money is a common theme of nearly every development project in the region: The Scenic Railroad from Cumberland to Frostburg received $100,000 from the state and will get $750,000 from Allegany County to buy a steam locomotive. And Frostburg State University just broke ground for a $17.8 million performing arts center -- the largest capital project funded by the state this year.
Former Western Maryland state Sen. John Bambucus is concerned about the reliance on government-subsidized projects. "While I have been supportive of many of these things, I do have a concern that we are beginning to see an imbalance between public and private sector projects in our community," he said.
Not far from Frostburg is the controversial $7 million Vale Summit landfill being developed by Chambers Development Corporation for Allegany County -- the only public landfill in the state operated by a private corporation.
The three county commissioners, who rode into office last year on an anti-out-of-state trash wave, are now considering offers from Chambers to give the county more than $1 million annually for permission to open up the landfill past its 125,000-ton yearly cap so that more out-of-state trash could be hauled in.
There is no local, state or federal money being spent on this project. There is only money to be made, and despite the cries from many protesters who have realistic fears of Western Maryland being a regional trash bin, it may be difficult for officials not to listen to the developers of the only major project under way out west that won't cost them money.
Tourism, troublemakers and trash may not be a Wharton School of Business economy, but it may be the one Western Maryland uses to revive a depressed area.
Thom Loverro covers Western Maryland for The Sun.