CAMBRIDGE - Gliding across the Frederick C. Malkus Bridge, you can see the big hotel off in the sunlit distance, startling because it's been preceded by so many drab little strip malls and gas stations and burger joints, and stunning because it hits you like Dorothy's first glimpse of the Emerald City.
The Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Resort has been doing business for 14 months now, and it's hard to find anyone around here who isn't singing hosannas for its impact on Cambridge and on Dorchester County, and for beginning to lift a swath of the Eastern Shore out of its prolonged economic doldrums.
"Has the Hyatt helped?" laughs Cambridge City Commissioner Leland Weldon. "Well, my house has doubled in value, if that's what you mean. Heck, it seems like everything around here's going up in value."
"Has it helped?" echoes Mayor Cleveland L. Rippons. "Well, the city of Cambridge has 3,600 housing units. And we're now talking about building 5,000 more. Four developments are under way. There's another bunch starting in the spring. There's now talk of bringing in new industry. Look, you go right across Route 50 from the Hyatt, and there's 900 acres. Wouldn't you love to have your high-tech park there, and then say, 'Hey, let's go across the road to the Hyatt and play some golf?'"
The two men echo others who talk in terms of Cambridge then - and now.
Fourteen months ago, this city was mainly a drive-through between the Bay Bridge and Ocean City. Long drained by the loss of manufacturing and seafood packaging jobs, its unemployment rate was near 12 percent. On Race Street, the heart of Cambridge's downtown retail area, so many businesses had been boarded up for so long that one commissioner declared how nice the street looked "now that the plywood over the windows has been painted."
In fact, there are old-timers around here who say the town's been on a slide since 1956, when the old Phillips Packing Co. closed its doors and stopped packing tomatoes, oysters and crabmeat. Hundreds of jobs were lost; so was a big sense of economic stability.
When the Hyatt resort opened, just before Labor Day a year ago, it brought back jobs - and it gave a whole community cause to puff out its chest a little.
For starters, the 342-acre resort is luxurious. It has 400 hotel rooms, restaurants, four swimming pools, a beautiful golf course, a 150-slip marina, a wildlife preserve, a health spa overlooking the Choptank River, and an upscale clientele that pays from $149 to about $200 a night, depending on the season.
"It's been 14 months, but it seems like six years," says the resort's general manager, Michael Walsh. "We've been so, so busy. Since we opened, we've got 84 percent occupancy on weekends, even in the winter. We're 24 percent over our forecasts on occupancy and revenues. We opened with 250 employees, and we peaked over the summer at 515. Most are local residents. We're at 375 now, in a time when hotels are taking a big hit and business and leisure travel are down."
Until the Hyatt project, the property had been a mental hospital since the early 1900s, employing about 400 people. But the place was outmoded. The hospital was rebuilt several miles away and its 400 jobs retained.
That's not all. In the resort's second phase of development, Hyatt officials hope to add 450 townhouses and single-family homes on the property - bringing more construction jobs to the area. In the Hyatt's first nine months of operation, city officials say, room taxes alone brought in $300,000 in city revenue, exceeding all projections.
"It's been a great marriage," says Commissioner Weldon. "The resort people have done flips and twists to help us with civic activities to make the town an appealing place. Downtown used to be so depressed. Now it's like a frontier town, people buying up buildings inexpensively. I think the resort gave people the courage to do those things."
There is also an attempt to build on some of the county's existing charms, such as the Blackwater Natural Wildlife Refuge. "We were already getting 300,000 people a year going there to see the bald eagles, to go boating and kayaking," Weldon says. "But we didn't have a real hotel in Dorchester County. They were here and gone."
Cambridge's formerly depressed Race Street now has a string of new shops: wine and cheese, gifts, children's art, books, antiques. There's an arts and entertainment district. Realtors report that homes once sitting on the market for six months are now sold in a matter of weeks.
"We like to think we're helping," says Hyatt GM Walsh. "But the potential was there. It's a nice little town with water around it and a creek running through it. Like Newport, Rhode Island."
Recently, the Maryland Municipal League held its convention there. "People from all over the state," said Mayor Rippons. "They were looking at all the amenities of the resort. And, I tell you, they were looking at Cambridge the way nobody's looked at it for a long time."