Cambridge dreams anew Development: Hyatt's plan to convert a state mental hospital into a waterfront resort is being viewed skeptically by a town with a history of dashed hopes.

January 10, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN STAFF

Donna Landon took a break from processing fish for Long John Silver's restaurant chain, pausing to chat in a muddy parking lot just a half mile from the tranquil waterfront property that embodies the hopes of an entire community.

A smock-clad foreman at the Coldwater Seafood plant in Cambridge, Landon knows the industrial outlook for the Eastern Shore town is not so bright. But Hyatt Hotels plans to develop a $152 million resort just across Route 50. Maybe, just maybe, she said, sunnier times lie ahead.

"They're trying to make it a tourist town," she shrugged, looking around at the hard-scrabble industrial strip on Woods Road. "I don't know if they can, but it's a nice town, and it needs help. I just hope it works."

After decades of disappointment and decay, the 30,800 people of Dorchester County are starting to dream. Hyatt has agreed to convert a turn-of-the-century mental hospital on the Choptank River into a luxury hotel, convention center, golf course and residential development. Proponents of the project are certain it represents a renaissance for a county that has long been the poor stepsister of the Eastern Shore.

"If we could put ourselves into a time capsule or take a pill and wake up in 10 years, I don't think we're going to recognize Dorchester County," boasted Glenn Bramble, a county commissioner and owner of Dorchester Service Associates, a Cambridge contractor.

Boosters concede that there must be people in the county who oppose the development. After all, said Dan Andersen, director of the Choptank School, a psychiatric center for troubled adolescents, there is an old joke in these parts:

Q: How many Dorchester County folks does it take to change a light bulb?

A: Change? What's change?

But if there are opponents, they are difficult to find among business owners, watermen and residents.

Instead, there is skepticism, borne out of a history of dashed hopes: the failure to land a major DuPont Corp. manufacturing plant a half-century ago, flirtations with the late waterfront developer James Rouse, the closure of numerous businesses.

"To tell you the truth," Cambridge plumber Lee Travers said of the Hyatt resort project, "I don't see why they'd want to do it here. I really don't."

For an outsider, it's easy to envision why Hyatt wants the 342 acres on the edge of town. Less than an hour from the eastern side of the Bay Bridge, it's an easy drive from Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia and Wilmington.

The Eastern Shore Hospital Center, an institution that evokes the Gilded Age, sits on a gracious campus that seems ideal for leisure.

At one time, said Cambridge Mayor David J. Wooten, patients were brought by boat from Baltimore. These days the hospital is reached by turning off Route 50, onto a tree-lined drive that meanders through marshes and cattails to the waterfront.

The Choptank River stretches more than a mile across, and the Frederick C. Malkus Jr. Bridge lies in sight but comfortably out of noise range.

Andersen, whose psychiatric center is on the property the locals are already calling "our Hyatt," said his facility and the hospital will be relocating.

But the large Tudor buildings on the waterfront that date back to the hospital's beginning in 1912 are likely to stay, adding a historical touch to a contemporary resort.

At the project's unveiling Wednesday in Annapolis, Gov. Parris N. Glendening said the resort would create 500 construction jobs, 350 permanent jobs and 300 other jobs, a shot in the arm for a region accustomed to poverty and unemployment.

The deal is contingent on Hyatt's ability to secure a loan of $80 million by Jan. 31, 1999, but Hyatt officials expressed confidence in the project.

Predicting a ripple effect, Cambridge business leaders say other investors will discover the town's tourism potential.

The historic section might attract visitors not willing to pay for a "four-star" resort but intrigued by Hyatt's choice of location.

Politicians say watermen and farmers will have an outlet for their goods and an opportunity to expand income through dockside seafood markets and fishing trips.

Wooten called it the most important development in Cambridge's 314-year history. Others in town were also optimistic, though less effusive.

Moreover, some said the resort project could put to rest a burning debate over whether to accept casino gambling in the county. Politicians and residents alike said the Hyatt would attract a clientele that would be incompatible with a gambling crowd.

"I'm just happy that we in town have something to hang our hats on besides casino gambling," said a relieved Ricky Travers, manager of Simmons Center Market, a downtown grocery store.

A few old-timers still believe gambling on the Cambridge waterfront is inevitable if Maryland ever moves to allow it.

The blossoming optimism seems natural amid the serenity of the Hyatt site, but the view from downtown Cambridge, a city of 10,900, tends to dampen the mood.

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