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W. Md. hope for economy lies with golf Rocky Gap State Park course, hotel could break ground March 1; But then again, )) maybe not; Controversial project faced uproar, delays, 13 years of planning


CUMBERLAND -- In a place where work has long been defined by heavy industries such as railroading, tire making and coal mining, hopes for economic salvation are now tied to iron -- the kind at the end of a golf club. AfterMountain eight miles east of here in Rocky Gap State Park.

Forget that taxpayers will pay for most of the project's cost. Never mind that some legislators see it as little more than a pork barrel indulgence by one influential lawmaker. Or that the starting date has been postponed numerous times, and next spring's plans still could go awry.

In economically ailing Allegany County, reality is simply this: Whatever promises a weekly paycheck gets a warm welcome.

"Anything that will bring tourists, jobs or money to the area is wonderful in my opinion," said Connie Clifton, 32, a Cumberland resident and community college academic adviser. "We really need the jobs."

Solicit opinions on any street corner in this city of 24,000 nestled in a dish-shaped mountain valley, and you will hear much the same reaction to the project officially known as "The Rocky Gap Lodge and Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course."

In many ways, Rocky Gap has taken on a symbolic importance as Western Maryland's "Queen City" attempts to strip away its rust belt tarnish and evolve into a 21st-century tourist attraction.

The 280 jobs the facility is predicted to generate will not come cheaply. The lakeside golf course and 220-room rustic hotel and conference center with such amenities as a fly-fishing school and shooting range are expected to cost $34.5 million.

The number is sizable, but it is not nearly so important to the people living west of Sideling Hill as the figure 8.1.

That is Allegany County's unemployment rate as of August. And while it is an improvement over the double-digit rates of just a few years ago, it is 60 percent higher than the statewide 5.0 average for the month.

"Jobs are the most important item on our agenda," said Cumberland Mayor Edward Athey. "Whatever image Cumberland needs to project to attract jobs, I want to be a part of that."

Mr. Athey's city has always been a working town. In the 19th century, it was a center for transportation and the second largest manufacturing center in the state. With these jobs came a wave of immigrants, Germans and Irish, many of whom worked on the railroad or the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.

Prosperity continued into the 1920s when tire-maker Kelly-Springfield arrived, lured by free land and a $750,000 "bonus" from the city -- the equivalent of more than $20 million today. "The Kelly," as it was known to thousands of employees over the years, became the city's primary employer.

But on May 21, 1987, the last bias ply tire came off the Kelly production line. When parent Goodyear Tire & Rubber decided to shut down the plant, the community lost more than 1,050 jobs. After losing two other major factories in the 1980s, Pittsburgh Plate Glass and fiber-maker Celanese Corp., it was a devastating blow.

"You could see it reflected in the hospitals, in our mental institutions, in our crime rate, in drinking and domestic violence," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany Democrat and Rocky Gap's chief benefactor in Annapolis. "It was a very ugly time."

Goodyear also had threatened to move Kelly's corporate headquarters, but with intervention from then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer, the county and state provided a $14 million headquarters and tire-testing laboratory, preserving 450 jobs.

It was then that Mr. Schaefer resurrected a 5-year-old plan to let a developer build a golf course and hotel at Rocky Gap. Because no developer ever had committed to the project, Mr. Schaefer sweetened the offer -- the state would build a golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus and let a developer build the hotel next door.

When that proposal also failed to attract investors, the state gradually added on incentives. Now, if Rocky Gap is built, it will be owned by MEDCO, the private, nonprofit Maryland Economic Development Corp. created so the state can develop property in economically distressed areas.

The project's complex finances include an $11 million state grant, a $3 million state loan, a $1 million loan from the federally funded Appalachian Regional Commission, and $4.5 million from Allegany County.

The remaining $15 million would be financed by tax-free bonds to be purchased by Texas financier Perry E. Esping, who is best known as a part-owner of the Houston Rockets professional basketball team.

Yet there are numerous obstacles. The deal with Mr. Esping, who would buy bonds yielding a hefty 11.85 percent interest, hasn't been completed, and construction subcontractor bids made last spring came in $2 million over budget. (Baltimore's Whiting-Turner Contracting has won the contract to manage the project.)

"We've got five months to address these problems," said Hans F. Mayer, MEDCO's executive director. "You never say never with this project, but it's my personal deadline."

With the completion of Interstate 68 in August 1991, Cumberland is less than a three-hour drive from Washington and Baltimore. Tourism has improved markedly. The city, which attracted no bus tours five years ago, will likely draw 400 this year, said Natalie Chabot, the county's tourism manager.

While the county has more jobs today than it did before Kelly closed, it has not replaced the Kelly paychecks. In the 1980s, Allegany County had the slowest growth in personal income of all 24 Maryland subdivisions, U.S. Department of Commerce records show.

The impact was felt by men like DeWarren J. O'Neal, Robert D. Roller and Clyde M. Love. All earned $11 to $13 an hour at Kelly. Today, the men, all in their 50s, hold jobs where they make about half their former pay.

"The economy of Western Maryland stinks," said Mr. Roller, 51, who now works as a maintenance man in a Cumberland credit union. "Rocky Gap would be nice, but it's not going to bring back $10 and $12 jobs."

Mr. Love, 54, was out of work for a year and a half when Kelly closed. He trained as a burglar alarm installer and worked in a restaurant and a bakery until landing his current job filling prescriptions for a pharmacist. Rocky Gap may provide an opportunity for his children, he said, but probably not for him.

"I'd just as soon see the money invested here as somewhere else," said Mr. Love.

Mr. O'Neal has watched many of his former colleagues leave town each morning to drive to jobs in Hagerstown or Winchester, Va., about 60 miles away. He was lucky enough to have earned a pension from his 28 1/2 years mixing rubber with chemical additives in the plant's mill room.

"I think a lot of folks are still having a rough time," he said. "I'd sure like to see something turn around."

Rocky Gap's numerous postponements over the years probably have reduced public enthusiasm for the project. With rooms expected to cost $88 a night and a round of golf $47, many Cumberland residents won't be able to afford its attractions.

There also is a certain skepticism about whether Rocky Gap will succeed. The nearest airport, a tiny facility across the Potomac River in West Virginia, doesn't have a regular flight to Baltimore. And what will tourists do in the winter? The closest skiing is 45 miles west.

"If the private sector doesn't think this is a good enough project to invest in, then I really have to question it," said Mary C. Miltenberger, a Cumberland dress shop owner who twice led unsuccessful petition drives to bring the project to a countywide referendum.

Nevertheless, Rocky Gap's best selling point has been that the resort could attract executives and chief executive officers who might want to do business in Cumberland. It could improve the community's image and spur new investment.

A New Jersey developer has told officials he would like to build a golf course development with homes and condominiums on 800 acres near the state park.

That kind of economic stimulus may be wishful thinking, but it means a lot to people who want better jobs.

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