CAMBRIDGE -- Buoyed by the 400-room Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Resort rising on the banks of the Choptank River, civic leaders are wondering how this city of 12,000 will handle what promises to be the biggest economic boom of its 300-year history.
Not that the euphoria has diminished since construction began on the 350-acre project on the site of a former state psychiatric hospital. If anything, people say, there is a sense of urgency to make sure the project spills over into Dorchester County's moribund economy.
"We've got one shot at this," said Gage Thomas, president of the county chamber of commerce. "I don't want to wake up two years from now and say, 'I wish we could have done it different.' "
Yesterday, half a dozen state officials turned out to speak at a daylong seminar to advise local leaders on what to expect from the massive development, which will include a golf course, conference center, restaurants, a 45-slip marina and an 85-foot pier, complete with a replica lighthouse at the end. Twelve acres of wetlands will be preserved as a heron rookery.
Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer told seminar participants the project is their city's "Inner Harbor."
"You don't know what's going to happen; you can't imagine the changes," said the former governor and Baltimore mayor. "You're going to have a boom."
Cambridge Mayor David Wooten worked for six months to organize the seminar that brought state economic development and other officials and is convinced it would be difficult to overestimate the economic impact of the Hyatt. The project could provide an annual $30 million boost for the Mid-Shore region.
The city has struggled for decades as jobs in manufacturing and a once-thriving seafood-packing industry have disappeared, leaving Dorchester with a median household income about one-third less than the state average.
"Hey, we haven't had too many $225 million developments in Cambridge," Wooten said. "No matter how you cut it, the Hyatt will have major impact for the city and the entire Eastern Shore, Cecil County to Worcester County."
Officials estimate that at least 1,200 construction jobs are directly tied to the project, including workers employed by local companies who have been hired as sub-contractors by Bethesda-based Clark Construction.
With an opening scheduled for December 2001, the Hyatt is expected to provide 350 full-time jobs, making it one of Dorchester County's largest employers. The resort will contract with local businesses for everything from charter boats to local seafood.
A second part of the project will bring 94 houses, 280 townhouse and 425 time-share units -- most with water views -- along the resort's golf course.
Guests at the six-story hotel or those who come to play golf or dine in one of the resort's restaurants will pass through a gate, then cross wetlands on wooden truss bridges.
The resort, with its milelong strip of U.S. 50 frontage, will be shielded from the highway by a landscaped slope 12 feet high and 80 feet wide, said Robert Knopf, project manager for Quadrangle Development Corp., the Washington firm that is developing the property.
With a tangle of gas stations, billboards and fast-food restaurants, U.S. 50 might prove to be Cambridge's biggest challenge in keeping up with the image established by Hyatt, especially because the busy highway separates the resort from the city's historic downtown.
"This city is a great place; unfortunately, most people see a series of gas stations and fast-food restaurants you pass on the way to Ocean City," Knopf said. "The city needs a comprehensive set of streetscape improvements for Route 50."
In addition, Knopf said, the city needs to hire a full-time economic development director to maintain the city's momentum.
One new project that city leaders say will improve the U.S. 50 corridor and provide better access to the Choptank is the nearly completed Sailwinds Visitor Center. The $2.8 million center will be punctuated by a 110-foot sail to promote the area's maritime history. The center is connected by a waterfront boardwalk to the Choptank River Fishing Pier.
"This is clearly a 'build it, they will come,' " said Marc Ellin, general manager of Washington, D.C.'s Grand Hyatt Hotel and head of Hyatt operations in this region. "And when they come, there is tremendous opportunity for Cambridge that goes beyond our project."