Hyatt proposes Cambridge resort $187 million project holds economic tonic for depressed area

January 24, 1996|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,SUN STAFF

Envisioning a major tourist destination in economically depressed Cambridge, Hyatt Hotels Corp. has proposed a swanky resort that would feature a luxury hotel and 400 vacation homes on 350 acres overlooking the Choptank River.

The $187 million project would become Maryland's first such luxury resort and, state and hotel officials say, rival the famed Greenbrier in West Virginia as a choice for leisure and business travelers alike.

Chicago-based Hyatt pitched the project to Maryland officials in response to a request for ideas to redevelop the state-owned Eastern Shore site, now home to a psychiatric hospital and nonprofit agencies.

A formal bidding process is slated to follow initial review.

Hyatt's preliminary proposal calls for a 400- to 500-room luxury hotel, 400 residences ranging from condominiums to single-family homes, an 18-hole golf course, 20,000 to 25,000 square feet of conference and meeting space, a marina, an equestrian center, a European spa, restaurants, racquetball, hiking trails and indoor and outdoor pools.

The proposal has drawn praise from Cambridge, Dorchester County and Maryland officials. They say it would pump millions of dollars into the local and state economies, heighten the Eastern Shore's reputation worldwide and provide a desperately needed source of jobs and money in Cambridge.

"I am not at all concerned about whether this resort could be successful," said George Williams, the state tourism director. "It would be a tremendous new asset and it would add tremendously to our marketing of Maryland.

"Any time you add that kind of attraction in the state, it's not just a hotel. They're talking about an entire waterfront development."

As did Hyatt officials, Mr. Williams called Cambridge an ideal site for such a resort -- on the banks of the Choptank, a stunning river up to two miles wide in places that is an ideal spot for boating, crabbing and fishing.

Unspoiled land abounds in the area, providing habitat for bald eagles, geese and osprey.

Downtown, history is well-preserved. Colonial architectural gems date to the 1700s. Museums chronicle the local marine heritage; the life of abolitionist Harriet Tubman, a Dorchester native; and Indians who once lived here.

Hyatt also said it found particularly appealing the site's proximity to international airports and major population centers, such as Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia, and easy access from U.S. Route 50, which bisects the town.

Most of all, the parcel's easy access to the Choptank waterfront won over the corporation, which has teamed with Quadrangle Development Corp. of Washington and Clark Construction Group Inc. of Bethesda in the proposed venture.

"It's not often that you can find this size site with this kind of water potential," said Dale Moulton, vice president for development at Hyatt, which has developed 16 large resorts in North America. "I could not do this if this site were on a farm out there."

The resort would draw most heavily from the Northeast region, from New York to Norfolk, Va., but would be advertised worldwide through Hyatt's elaborate direct-mail marketing program.

"You don't build a Hyatt and hope people driving by will stop in," Mr. Moulton said.

"We want to draw people to the area. Sometimes you have to be bold in this business to do that. It's easy to follow and fall behind."

Some leaders in Cambridge, the town where millions of beach-bound motorists pass through but rarely stop, strongly support the Hyatt proposal -- especially Hyatt's promise of $30 million in annual spending, more than $5 million in annual state and local taxes and 400 jobs.

The struggling town of 12,000 people, where sharpshooter Annie Oakley once aimed her rifle from the ledge of her waterfront home, desperately needs an infusion of new industry.

The once-thriving vegetable-packing plants have long since left town, factories have shut down and the tax base has sunk. Dorchester County unemployment is about 12 percent.

Mayor welcomes project

Cambridge Mayor David J. Wooten Jr. could hardly contain his enthusiasm about the Hyatt proposal.

"It would mean a total revolution," he said. "We would have funds where we have none, we would be able to what needs to be done.

"It would seem to me that when you enumerate the benefits that it would almost sell itself."

Past efforts to turn the Dorchester County seat into a tourism center have collapsed from a lack of financing or community support.

Several ambitious projects begun in the past decade have left a legacy of a few dozen townhouses along a creek, and some shops and restaurants.

As the would-be tourists passed Cambridge by, nearby Eastern Shore towns such as St. Michaels and Oxford have grown and now thrive with a steady flow of visitors.

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