Rocky Gap resort complex cleared for May 20 start Envisioned as tonic for an ailing region

THE BALTIMORE SUN

They had prepared for this toast countless times in the 15 years since conceiving a luxury resort and golf course in the mountains of Western Maryland.

Yesterday, state and Allegany County leaders could raise their glasses, at last, to what they promised will become Maryland's answer to Greenbrier, the famous resort in West Virginia.

The tortuous saga ended yesterday morning when the state Board of Public Works approved the Rocky Gap Lodge & Golf Resort, a $54 million project expected to become a major tourist attraction and boon to the ailing Western Maryland economy.

Years of frustration -- born of delays blamed on the recession, the bureaucracy, the economy, politics and any number of other hitches -- gave way to giddy anticipation as about 100 longtime supporters of the project celebrated at the Loews Annapolis hotel.

"I'm pinching myself," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., a Cumberland native and the driving force behind the project. "I think it's for real this time."

Construction of the project, to be built around a championship golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus, is set to begin May 20 and is expected to be completed by April 1998.

The resort, to be built in Rocky Gap State Park about five miles east of Cumberland off Interstate 68, will feature a 220-room luxury hotel, a ballroom, 14,000 square feet of meeting space, a restaurant, a swimming pool, two tennis courts and boating.

"Maybe," Mr. Taylor said, "you all ought to close your eyes and pretend you're sitting in the dining room at Rocky Gap overlooking the lake."

Many did just that, and savored the moment.

Louis Goldstein, the state treasurer, said Switzerland has nothing on Western Maryland's mountains, and soon everybody would know it.

Many will find Western Maryland irresistible, then settle and stay, he predicted. Pointing to Calvert County, where recent arrivals have begun building houses costing up to $1 million, Mr. Goldstein said: "The same thing's going to happen up there to these beautiful mountains. They're as beautiful as Switzerland's."

It was a time for war stories, recollections and more than a few jokes.

Torrey C. Brown, a former Department of Natural Resources secretary, asked a few bald men to stand up, then donned a wig. "When this project started," he said, "we all looked like this."

John Griffin, the current DNR secretary, recalled the early, less-than-enthusiastic response from some developers and bankers: "They said, 'Fellows, you know what you're trying to do, you're trying to build an entertainment center on the moon,' " he said. "Bankers didn't know where Western Maryland was."

That has changed considerably, as the region has increasingly turned to fostering tourism and building attractions to help fill the gap left by the sharp decline of once-reigning industries such as manufacturing and mining.

"This is exactly the kind of project Western Maryland needs -- creating a resurgency in job growth through tourism," said Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who had threatened to pull the plug unless financing was set by June 1. The state will contribute $16.4 million for the project; Allegany County, $4.5 million. Three private investors will provide a total of $31.4 million, and the Maryland Economic Development Corp. will contribute $1.8 million.

The governor's office predicted that the project would generate $35 million in annual spending, $1.6 million in state and local tax revenues and more than 400 jobs in a county with a 10 percent unemployment rate.

Leaders of the project say it will complement other attractions and help turn Western Maryland into a major tourism destination, drawing as many as 500,000 visitors a year to Allegany and surrounding counties within the next decade.

Canal Place, a long-term project that recently received final local approval, is to transform the area along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in Cumberland into a tourist attraction offering canal rides and celebrating the region's transportation heritage with museums and a waterfront park.

The Western Maryland Scenic Railroad has grown more popular since it began carrying passengers aboard steam trains between Frostburg and Cumberland in 1987.

Frostburg opened a $20 million performing arts center a few years ago. Deep Creek Lake has steadily increased the number of visitors, and Washington County recently raised its hotel tax to raise money to promote Civil War-related tourism.

"For years, people have made the trip to Ocean City," said Jeffrey Rebb, the Cumberland city administrator. "We'd like to have them go the other way to the mountain side of Maryland."

Pub Date: 5/02/96

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