Hotel project provokes mistrust


CAMBRIDGE - All of Cambridge seems confident that ambitious projects along the Choptank River, including the 400-room, $225 million Hyatt Chesapeake Resort, will soon turn things around in the once-prosperous port city of 10,000.

Maybe not all of Cambridge. Over on Pine Street, in the heart of the black community where, more than 30 years ago, black activist H. Rap Brown helped light a fire fueled by anger and frustration, skepticism runs deep.

Black leaders have heard a lot about the 350-acre Hyatt complex, which is to include an 850-foot pier, a marina, a golf course, a convention center and expensive homes.

They've heard how, after nearly a decade of stalled development, the Sailwinds Park pavilion and festival hall will be linked by a waterside boardwalk with the new $3 million visitors center next to the Frederick C. Malkus Jr. Bridge, allowing the city to capitalize on its greatest resource, the 2-mile-wide river.

Now they want to know what the waterfront construction will mean for the 47 percent of the population that has historically been shut out of everything but the lowest rungs of the local economy.

"We're concerned that all this is going to benefit a small number of people in Cambridge and Dorchester County," said the Rev. Enez Stafford Grubb, a Dorchester native who is site coordinator for Sojourner-Douglass College's local operations. "Racism hasn't been subtle here. The wealth has never been spread around."

Wealth appears to have bypassed many in Maryland's largest county on the Eastern Shore. Dorchester is among four poor counties eligible for aid under the One Maryland program. Unemployment appears stuck at about 10 percent, and the average household income, $32,855, is nearly 40 percent below the state average.

Cambridge, the county seat, has never fully recovered from the loss of seafood and produce packing operations that once dominated the local economy. The city's population has dropped nearly 10 percent since 1980.

Pine Street, once home to black-owned businesses that included a hotel, a laundry, restaurants, nightclubs and grocery stores, has never been the same since rioting in 1967 set many neighborhood landmarks ablaze.

"Pine Street was a viable business community; the dollars turned over many times right here," says Grubb. "It was a major part of the Eastern Shore for African-Americans. All the big entertainers played here - James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles. We want to see redevelopment in this area."

Many city business leaders doubt whether the Cambridge and Dorchester political establishment will undertake the improvements that would enable the city to take full advantage of the Hyatt project that one described as "our dream come true on the river." And differences of opinion stemming from racial factors might further delay needed policy decisions, they say.

"I can understand some of what's being said about past history," says Gage Thomas, a real estate agent who heads the county Chamber of Commerce and was recently appointed to the Sailwinds board of directors. "History is important, but we have to move forward. We're all Cambridge. We've got to decide who we are and where we need to go."

Gage and other business leaders are urging city and county officials to develop comprehensive plans for improving the downtown business district and a marketing plan incorporating the Hyatt, which is expected to add $300 million annually to the local economy, including about $500,000 a year in city taxes.

Prices for commercial real estate along U.S. 50 have increased tenfold since the Hyatt deal was announced last year, according to real estate brokers.

"There is one inescapable fact that people should not forget," says Memo Diriker, a Salisbury State University economist who has researched economic development projects throughout the Eastern Shore. "For every job that will be filled at the Hyatt, two or three more will be created outside. Skepticism is understandable, but at the very least, the glass is half-full in Cambridge."

Black leaders say they have been disappointed before. The development of Sailwinds Park was planned in 1991 by the nonprofit board that oversees its operation as the hub for a host of commercial projects that has never come to fruition.

The Sailwinds pavilion and festival building that can accommodate 5,000 are booked with nearly 50 events this year, but black leaders say their community feels little connection to the riverside park.

"When Sailwinds was first designed, there was talk about a restaurant operated by African-Americans," says the Rev. Leon B. Hall Sr., a state employment services counselor and minister of the 300-member Bethel AME Church.

"Having something like that on site would make a real difference, but there's always a feeling of mistrust. This community is still affected by things that happened in the '60s," he says.

Cambridge's downtown business district, like those in so many small towns, has withered over the years. Commercial development has moved to the U.S. 50 strip that divides the Hyatt project from the rest of town. Black leaders say they are concerned that the Hyatt will become an exclusive island isolated from the rest of the city.

Plans to upgrade downtown with help from the state's Main Street program were shelved this spring until after city elections June 13 because officials couldn't agree on the boundaries for the redevelopment area.

Also of concern, say Hall and Grubb, is the number of jobs to be filled by local residents and the kinds of jobs they can expect.

"People need to have jobs with dignity, jobs that will allow people to support families," Grubb says. "Most of our young people have to move away to make a decent living."

Marc Ellin, who heads Hyatt's operations in this region from the Grand Hyatt in Washington, says that as many as 90 percent of 350 permanent jobs at the Choptank resort - all of them with a benefits package that will include medical and dental coverage, educational reimbursement, free meals and free lodging at any Hyatt property - will be filled locally.

In addition, he said, local vendors, contractors and suppliers will reap business from the project, which will eventually include 1,000 single-family homes.

"Sure, we're an international company, and we have national contracts," Ellin says. "We buy shampoo for all our properties from one vendor. But ask me where we'll look for local seafood. We always strike out and make agreements with local vendors."

With the hotel's opening tentatively set for the end of next year, Hall says state officials expect to meet to discuss job opportunities and training at the resort.

In addition, a coalition of Dorchester tourism and business groups has initiated a partnership with Chesapeake College, the regional community college, for 46 courses that will train workers for the tourism and hospitality industry.

"My feeling is that we have to work to make sure the Hyatt project is mutually beneficial for all of us," Hall says. "All this is going to have social, economic and political effects. Still, my gut feeling is to have a positive outlook for where we'll be in the next five to 10 years."

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