Center preparing for peace summit Wye River setting awaits diplomats from U.S., Mideast

October 14, 1998|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

QUEENSTOWN -- An elegant 1,100-acre Eastern Shore retreat near the tranquil headwaters of the Wye River is about to become the center of international diplomacy -- at least for a few days.

American, Palestinian and Israeli leaders are to begin arriving tomorrow at the Wye River Conference Center for negotiations that officials hope will produce a breakthrough Middle East peace accord.

As diplomats iron out last-minute issues of substance and protocol, hotels from Annapolis to Accomac, Va., are filling up, electricians are working into the night, and telephone technicians are wiring dozens of new lines.

With President Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat leading the negotiations, security at the secluded complex that also played host to talks between Israel and Syria in 1995 will be extremely tight.

Staff members at the facility, which is owned by the nonprofit Aspen Institute and managed by Marriott Conference Centers, have seen their share of high-level executive retreats and diplomatic talks, but the next few days will be extraordinary.

"This is really an historic event," said general manager Ray O'Mara. "We've done it before in terms of the type of event, but obviously, not anything of this significance."

O'Mara and a staff of 80, with about a dozen more borrowed from other Marriott conference centers, have been working with the State Department, the White House and advance teams for the Israeli and Palestinian delegations. Everything from menus to where to place the trailers that will house security and other support personnel has been discussed.

"What we're looking for is optimum security, but with maximum flexibility in order to accommodate all parties," O'Mara said. "We were chosen because this is a distraction-free environment. It's a perfect backdrop that allows people to focus."

Summit participants will be housed in three distinct buildings occupying the waterfront property that once was the plantation home of William Paca, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and later of a young, pre-abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

The three buildings combined provide luxury accommodations for 125 to 130, along with dining facilities, meeting rooms with state-of-the-art audiovisual and communications equipment.

They all offer impressive views -- of the Wye East River, Wye PTC Narrows or Wye Island -- in addition to a variety of exercise and recreational facilities. For secure and rapid transportation, there's even a helicopter landing site.

A few miles away, Chesapeake College is opening its 170-acre campus near Wye Mills to an expected horde of journalists from all over the world. Officials at the two-year community college have been told to expect from 400 to 1,000 reporters, television and radio technicians.

Reporters and photographers will not be allowed at the conference center after 11 a.m. today , but will set up equipment in the college's 600-seat performing arts center. The White House press corps will be assigned a small conference room and overflow will be accommodated in the college gym.

State Department and White House staff members will be given temporary office space vacated for the occasion by the regional Private Industry Council, said Marcie A. Molloy, the college's public information director.

"We've had four or five electricians working here very late, just trying to get everything all set up," Molloy said. "We have been told what to expect, but information from the State Department seems to change every hour. We expect this to go on through Sunday, but I suppose that depends on how well the talks go."

With the United States Powerboat Show expected to draw 50,000 people to Annapolis this weekend, hotel rooms are fast becoming scarce, say hotel operators from Kent Island to the Lower Shore.

"We've gotten a lot of calls from news organizations, but there's not much we can do to help," said Jeannie Asquith, general manager of the Sleep Inn in Grasonville. "We have waiting lists in case people cancel reservations."

Located three miles from U.S. 50 and protected by a still-rural chunk of Queen Anne's County, the conference center seems worlds away from the busy highway.

Charles "Chuck" Schnaitman, who runs a seafood and boat rental business across the Wye East River from the conference center, says he frequently delivers fresh crabs to the chefs there -- but only when security is more relaxed.

"Three years ago when the Syrians and Israelis were there, the [Department of Natural Resources] police patrol boats kept people from getting much past my dock," Schnaitman said. "We occasionally see helicopters land, but it's pretty low-key. This week I'm sure will be different."

Residents of The Overlook, the only residential community near the institute's property, say the retreat center is usually a good neighbor. Early this week, though, they've noticed what they assume to be security patrols slowly driving through the 52-home neighborhood.

"There's only one way in and one way out, just one road," said Vicki Hartman. "There's definitely been an increase in traffic. We've had a lot of strange cars in the neighborhood. Maybe some are just curiosity-seekers, but some are obviously government vehicles."

Pub Date: 10/14/98

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