Rocky Gap resort viewed as engine of growth Development seen as spark to other Western Md. projects

September 15, 1998|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

CUMBERLAND -- With its first months of business deemed a %% success, the Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort may lead the way for other new business ventures in Western Maryland, the resort's biggest booster says. %%

%% House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., who termed the resort's start a "wonderful opening year," said that two companies have shown an interest in locating in the economically depressed mountainous area.

One firm operating country-western theme parks is thinking of building a park, and a Hollywood film company is considering setting up a year-round production facility, said the Cumberland Democrat, who declined to name the companies.

Taylor gave no other details except that the theme-park operator has visited Allegany and Garrett counties in the past year and talked with local officials.

The second possibility, a facility for film production, would follow trend that has seen California movie companies set up operations in South and North Carolina in recent years.

"I spent a day here with the owner of a major Hollywood company and he's talking about 500 acres and employing 1,500 people somewhere in Western Maryland," Taylor continued. "One reason is Rocky Gap Resort. Those film people want the good life on their down time, and an excellent golf course and resort somewhere nearby would a big draw. It could mean many jobs."

Cumberland Mayor Edward Athey said officials of the companies had made inquiries with the city's Community Development Department, the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad and other organizations. David Turnbull, president of the Allegany County Chamber of Commerce, said he also expected to talk with them. He agreed with Athey, who said he was "very excited about what the future holds."

Taylor also said that the success of the decade-old country music festival at Rocky Gap State Park prompted him and other local officials to propose that the state and private interests build an $8 million "Rocky Gap Performing Arts Amphitheater" by 2000.

The amphitheater would be home to the festival and other shows throughout the summer with permanent, sheltered seating for about 3,000 and lawn space for another 4,000. It would be at the opposite end of Lake Habeeb from the resort lodge in the 3,500-acre state park.

Taylor said the private Rocky Gap Foundation, which he heads, will spend $140,000 to begin planning. He will ask the state legislature for $1 million next year for grading and other "footprint" work. The state and a corporation would split the rest, $7 million.

"We've been watching West Virginia clean our clock with their upscale mountain resorts such as Blackwater Falls and Canaan Valley, developed by the state," said Taylor. "Rocky Gap shows we can do the same things in Maryland."

Meanwhile, the resort opened the hilly back nine holes of its Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course Sept. 4. In its first week, about 200 golfers played the course.

After delays due to heavy spring rains and summer heat, the remainder of the public 18-hole course is expected to open in May or June, said Thomas A. Ruhs, general manager.

"One washout took out 80 percent of the second green," said Ruhs. "Despite all that, we've had good business. Occupancy is real strong. We've had a tremendous impact on other area businesses. Our partnership with the rangers in the state park is exciting. I'm surprised at the park campers who canoe or walk to our restaurant to eat."

Among lodge guests last week were about 100 Knights of Pythias and the Pythian Sisters in their annual Maryland Grand Session.

"They're treating us well," said Sally Schramm of Lonaconing in Garrett County. "I'm impressed."

William Yates of Annapolis and Fort Lauderdale, brother-in-law of a Knight, had a personal interest in the resort. His family farmed the land for generations before it opened as Rocky Gap State Park in 1974.

"I think it's fabulous. My great-uncle, Norman McLuckie, sold the farm to the state. He couldn't have imagined this resort. I just wish they'd kept the old barn."

Ruhs works for Buena Vista Hospitality Group, which manages the resort. He reported these early signs of business since the "soft opening" in March and the official one April 17:

* Occupancy of the 220 lodge rooms was 49 percent in June, 50 percent in July, 70 percent in August and is expected to be "way above 70 percent" in September, October and part of November.

* About 15,000 guests from 320 corporations and social or service organizations, in groups of 10 to more than 200, have stayed at the lodge. One Pittsburgh company rented the entire resort for a week. Transient walk-in business was slower -- about 5,000 guests.

Two hundred twenty-one area residents work at the resort and generate a payroll of $300,000 a month. More staffers are expected to be hired.

* Area outdoor adventure companies report at least $80,000 in new revenue. Some restaurants, stores, suppliers and the scenic railroad from Cumberland to Frostburg also benefit.

"The resort has meant thousands more people are using the park this year," said Shelley Miller, a state ranger naturalist, who helps arrange outdoor activities such as hiking, rappelling and rafting.

* Ruhs said he expected the resort to reach its objective of year-round occupancy of 65 percent and 35,000 golfers earlier than the end of 2003.

The delay in opening the golf course has been "difficult, but manageable," he said. "We're behind schedule this year because of that, but in a year we'll be ahead of schedule."

Pub Date: 9/15/98

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