Could Maryland Get the Mouse?

October 15, 1994

If the Walt Disney Co. pursues its historic theme park idea somewhere besides Virginia, Maryland would be ideal for it, based on the criteria the company has already set forth:

First, it said, the site must be near the nation's capital. That rules out deep-pockets Pennsylvania, which hoped to land the park if Virginia faltered. Second, it must have access to interstate highways -- another Maryland strength as seen by the Fortune 500 companies placing distribution centers here. Third, the land must be zoned for development. Fourth, the site must be large enough for a buffer to minimize Disney's impact.

This last standard might be the stickiest point. Disney would have trouble finding a site of 3,000 acres in the Baltimore-D.C. corridor, as it had in Prince William County, Va. But among the large tracts that might interest it is property owned by developer Kingdon Gould in the Jessup area and the White Marsh site once considered for an Asian theme park. Tourism-minded Gov. William Donald Schaefer has pushed Maryland's cause with Disney's brass since the company dropped its plans in Haymarket, Va. After all the wrangling over this project, some Marylanders might ask: Why bother?

One reason is that tourism is a natural strength for us. Sure, luring an auto manufacturer would bring higher paying jobs, but if you've noticed, most of those new projects have been landing in right-to-work states to the south. Disney would have immense spinoffs for the hospitality industry and its suppliers; for every $1 the state invests in tourism, an estimated $100 come back. And in the travel trade, there's no name like Disney.

As state economic development director Mark Wasserman says, couldn't invent this." Never had his office gotten so many press inquiries as the day after Disney dissed Virginia. Everyone wanted to know if Maryland would jump in.

Disney insists that Virginia is still its top choice. But what the company says publicly in the East and privately in Burbank are two different things: Company Chairman Michael Eisner vowed earlier this summer that the project opposition only made him more resolute to follow through, which ultimately wasn't the case. What's more, the new top man at Disney's America, John F. Cooke, president of The Disney Channel, is a Johns Hopkins University trustee very familiar with Maryland.

There are huge "ifs" here. Will Disney carry out this project, now saddled with such negative perceptions? Can the company carry it out with so much turmoil in its upper ranks? Will Maryland's new governor perceive the potential as have Mr. Schaefer and his counterpart in Virginia, George Allen? If Disney does look to Maryland, and a proper site is found, we hope this state's leadership will grasp the value of this project as Virginia's did.

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