Cumberland bets on tourism Mules and money: A $200 million venture called Canal Place is the centerpiece of Cumberland's effort to create a promising future by re-creating its past.

March 31, 1996|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,SUN STAFF

CUMBERLAND -- In the foothills of the mountains rising alongside the mighty Potomac River, pioneering giants of American transportation once converged.

Mule-drawn boats loaded with coal plied the waters of America's first canal. Steam engines chugged their way up the hills on the rails of America's first passenger lines. Stagecoaches, carriages and, eventually, cars made their way west on America's first national road.

Now, this Western Maryland city of 25,000 is staking its future on re-creating the past, hoping to lure droves of tourists to relive its rich heritage as a hub of westward expansion.

At the heart of Canal Place, a $200 million public-private venture that received City Council approval this month, planners envision a newly rebuilt 3.5-mile section of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal where mules would pull boatloads of tourists.

Over the next several years, the face of the area around the canal, the historic Western Maryland Railroad Station and the neighboring downtown are expected to change radically. Empty industrial buildings and freight yards will become sites of major museums chronicling Cumberland's transportation and industrial history, a new hotel, restaurants and shops, a waterfront park, brick esplanades, footbridges, a river marsh and wildlife habitat, a boardwalk.

Winding along the canal will be a new $42 million parkway, which won state approval last month, linking the downtown tourist center with the southern reaches of the city and the Cumberland Regional Airport, across the Potomac in West Virginia.

To Casper R. Taylor Jr., a Cumberland native and speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, the project provides a recipe for reviving the economy in his hometown, hard hit in recent years by the loss of one factory after another.

On a sunny afternoon last weekend, Mr. Taylor strolled along lifeless railroad tracks and imagined a vastly different scene.

Imagine, he said, a river front bustling with visitors riding on canal boats, steam trains, horse-drawn carriages, canoes. Picture now-empty warehouses crowded with throngs of visitors savoring a plethora of hands-on (and climb-on) exhibits and archives chronicling transportation and industries such as coal, steel and textiles. On this corner, a high-rise hotel would be built, on that street, new shops and restaurants. In the park, concerts, festivals and storytellers would entertain. In downtown and on the waterfront, actors would lead historically correct tours based on exhaustive oral histories and other research.

"If you can just envision tying all this together, we have all these cultural gems buried here," Mr. Taylor said.

Mr. Taylor, an Allegany County Democrat, has been a leader in the Canal Place effort for years. He backed the 1993 legislation that created Maryland's first "heritage preservation tourism area" and the new state agency overseeing the project, the Canal Place Preservation and Development Authority. The authority -- composed of six members appointed by the governor and others representing the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Maryland Historical Trust and the Cumberland mayor and City Council -- devised the long-term blueprint designed to promote development and economic growth while preserving the city's heritage.

Cumberland could soon serve as a model for other such districts statewide. Under a measure sponsored by Mr. Taylor and expected to receive General Assembly approval, such locally based authorities could receive up to $1 million in state grants and loans, float revenue bonds and benefit from a host of tax breaks.

The idea is to better capitalize on Maryland's rich history.

"Tourism as an industry is growing by leaps and bounds, and a big part of that growth is heritage tourism," Mr. Taylor said. "When you stop and think about it, the East Coast has the bulk of the heritage because the East Coast is where the country started. So we've got heritage and cultural sites that no one else has. We've got the Revolutionary War history. We've got the Colonial history. We've got the Civil War. We've got the transportation heritage. We've got it all right here."

In Cumberland, the Canal Place project has gained considerable momentum in recent months, with approval of the $42 million parkway. The roadway has long been seen as crucial to the project's success to provide easy access to the historic tourism area.

The Canal Place authority is now turning its attention to another big-ticket item, rebuilding and rewatering the terminus of the C&O Canal, expected to cost at least $35 million. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, working with the National Park Service, which owns the national parkland abutting the 185-mile long Cumberland-Georgetown canal, has begun engineering studies for the project, and is expected to approve at least part of its cost next year, Mr. Taylor said.

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