Bluegrass, country festival puts Rocky Gap on map Event brings crowds to region once known as 'forgotten land'


July 31, 1992|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Staff Writer

CUMBERLAND -- Dan McMullen, a lifelong resident of Allegany County, grew up with a regional inferiority complex.

"You grew up in this community hearing your parents and grandparents say over and over again, 'We're the forgotten. This is the forgotten land,' " he says.

That was before the Rocky Gap Country Bluegrass Festival.

The three-day festival, which begins today at Rocky Gap State Park, is not the only reason the state's western counties are feeling frisky these days. But Rocky Gap, as the festival is called, more than any other event or happenstance, has drawn attention to this once-forgotten land.

"This event helps put Western Maryland on the map to the outside world," says Del. Casper R. Taylor Jr., a Democrat who represents Washington and Allegany counties in the state legislature. Mr. Taylor is president of the Rocky Gap Foundation, which puts on the festival. Mr. McMullen is executive director.

The festival has gone a long way toward wiping out the old inferiority complex, Mr. McMullen says.

"When you look around and see all these people coming to your county from all over the region," he says, "it does make you proud. People kind of pump up their chest and say, 'We've got this festival here.' "

This is Rocky Gap IV, featuring Alabama, Vince Gill, Conway Twitty, George Jones, Restless Heart, Asleep At The Wheel and Mary-Chapin Carpenter. The outside world seems well aware of that fact.

"You cannot find a hotel room within an hour's drive of Cumberland in any direction, and you haven't been able to for a week and a half," says John Kirby, assistant director of the Allegany County Department of Economic Development.

"What if every motel room within an hour's drive of the Inner Harbor was booked for an entire weekend?" Mr. Kirby says. "It's a different scale, but that's the same kind of impact the festival is having on Allegany County."

Rocky Gap State Park, a gorgeous blend of mountains, meadows and a large lake, is pretty much in the center of Allegany County. But Maryland is skinny right there, and the impact of the music festival spills over into Garrett, Washington and Frederick counties, as well as Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Mike Barletta, general manager of the 130-room Holiday Inn in Cumberland, says he is referring last-minute callers to hotels in Frederick, a 90-minute drive east, and Pittsburgh, Pa., a 2 1/2 -hour drive west. "We're sold out for next year and the year after that already," he says.

The 278 campsites at Rocky Gap State Park were reserved by 11:30 a.m. the day they became available one year ago. Park rangers also created more than 400 temporary campsites, which are full too.

The festival was actually the idea of a state chef who worked for Gov. William Donald Schaefer, says Delegate Taylor. The chef was "a bluegrass nut," Mr. Taylor says, who thought Maryland couldn't survive without a country and bluegrass festival. The governor, who liked the idea, insisted the festival be at the state park, Mr. Taylor says.

Rocky Gap I drew about 18,000 people, Mr. Taylor says. Rocky Gap II drew about 20,000, and Rocky Gap III about 25,000.

Advance ticket sales for this year's festival surpassed that number a week and a half ago, Mr. Taylor says. He says Rocky Gap IV will probably attract more than 30,000 people. That's nearly half the population of Allegany County, where about 75,000 people live.

The festival and other annual events have helped Western Maryland diversify its economy, which 20 to 25 years ago depended on heavy industry, Mr. Taylor calls "smokestack industries."

"We believe this is part of the new face of Western Maryland," he says.

That face includes recreation and tourism, high-tech and health industries, manufacturing and higher education.

Ed Mason owns two restaurants, Mason's Barn and J.B.'s Steak Cellar, near Rocky Gap State Park outside Cumberland. He's owned Mason's Barn since 1954. He served 12 years in the state Senate, from 1971 to 1983.

He says the festival helps business, but so do numerous other events throughout the year in Western Maryland. What helps even more, he says, is Interstate 68, which opened last year and slices through the heart of Allegany County.

"When I first went to the legislature, Allegany and Garrett counties were 'way out there,' " he says. "Now we're about a two hours' drive from the Beltway."


Planning to go? The State Forest and Park Service, Department of Natural Resources suggests that anyone attending the Rocky Gap Country Bluegrass Festival should not arrive earlier than the 8 a.m. scheduled gate opening.

Early traffic will cause backups and hazards on the exit ramp from Interstate 68, as well as the interstate itself.

Although DNR and festival traffic and parking teams are prepared to offer assistance, cooperation by motorists is essential.

Spectators may bring in as many lawn chairs as they wish, but the chairs must be removed every night. Cloths, blankets or ground tarps are not permitted to reserve seating areas overnight.

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