Back from a rough start

Tourism: After a long wait, Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort opens the last nine holes of its course this week.

May 13, 1999|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

CUMBERLAND -- The fairways are still a bit ragged-looking, and one green could use a dose of Propecia.

But come Saturday, the last nine holes at Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort will open for play. The roar of lawn mowers and grass trimmers has filled the air this week as groundskeepers primp the hilly, Jack Nicklaus-designed course for its full-fledged debut.

"We'll be ready," vowed Jim Bauer, who is in charge of the 220-room rustic lodge on the shore of Lake Habeeb, eight miles east of Cumberland.

With the golf course ride hopes that the $55.6 million government-backed hotel, restaurant and conference center will swing into profitability and help revive Western Maryland's slumping economy.

The resort lost $970,000 during its first year of operation, a deficit blamed largely on weather-related delays in finishing the course.

Nine holes opened for play in September, but heavy rains and summer drought combined to delay its completion until spring, say those involved with the project.

"Golf really hurt us," says Hans Mayer, executive director of the Maryland Economic Development Corp., a state-sponsored nonprofit entity that brought together public and private interests to develop the resort.

With a late start and only nine holes open for play, golfing yielded $176,000 in revenues during the resort's first year rather than the $1.5 million that had been projected, Mayer said.

The lack of a complete 18-hole course as an attraction also cut into the resort's lodging and food business, he added. The six-story lodge averaged 47 percent occupancy during its first year, with three-quarters of its business coming from the nearly 600 groups that held meetings there.

Mayer said the first-year loss is not a concern. Such resorts usually need four years to achieve profitability, he said, and a $3.5 million reserve fund can sustain it until then.

"Things are starting to shape up," he said.

During the past several weeks, what had been a barren, muddy quagmire has been transformed into a rolling, green landscape with a blitz of seeding, sodding and sprinkling.

Bauer, the rooms director, jumped on a mower to help manicure the course.

"The tee boxes and greens are beautiful," Bauer said as he toured the course on a golf cart this week. "The rough areas are still coming in, but since they're not in play, that's OK."

A woodchuck dashed for cover by the first green as Bauer's cart passed by.

On Saturday, the critter will have to put up with a lot more human company. About 200 golfers have signed up to play this weekend, and the lodge is nearly booked to capacity.

Drawing business to a new resort takes time and money. Mayer said MEDCO is planning to spend "in the low six figures" marketing Rocky Gap to meeting planners and golfers in the coming year. The resort is managed by Florida-based Buena Vista Hospitality Group.

"Weekdays, especially Monday and Tuesday, are slow," said Joe Lonigro, director of golf. "We are doing as much as we can to get people to come out and see what we have."

Fees reduced

To draw more golfers, the resort through May 26 is knocking $10 off its usual fees to play 18 holes.

The regular fees are $66 for the general public, $56 for hotel guests and $45 for county residents.

"When they come, they're going to get a good taste of what Western Maryland is all about," said Lonigro, a Pennsylvania native who played basketball at Allegany College here and returned in March to become chief golf pro.

Wildlife are an everyday sight at the resort, which is inside a 3,500-acre state park nestled between Evitts and Martin's mountains. Deer frequent the hilltop driving range, Lonigro noted, and a guest last year encountered a black bear in the parking lot.

"Once they get the whole course open, I think it'll draw a lot of business," Clay Ingram, 45, of Cumberland, said as his threesome played this week. "There's really not a lot [of golf] around here."

Ailing Allegany

Rocky Gap's developers and supporters are counting on the resort and conference center to give a boost to economically ailing Allegany County, which has lost thousands of high-paying manufacturing and white-collar jobs during the past 20 years.

The project has sparked controversy, as some questioned the feasibility of a conference center a two-hour drive from major metropolitan areas, and others complained about the commercialization of a state park.

The state put up $16 million for the development.

Some Allegany residents blanched at the resort's big-city prices -- room rates run from $90 to $310 per night -- and others have grumbled about the county's diversion of state funds for parks and recreation to repay the $4.5 million it borrowed as its share of the project.

But Rocky Gap's boosters remain convinced that the government's gamble will pay off, leading to a reincarnation of Western Maryland as a mecca for outdoor-sports enthusiasts.

"I think it's the beginning of more and more destination tourism," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany Democrat who has been a major backer of the resort. He is a frequent visitor and, though not a golfer, is sponsoring its first major tournament, scheduled for June 7.

`Good-paying jobs'

"The thing I like about it is there are a lot of people working here who are tickled to death to have these good-paying jobs," Taylor said.

The resort's work force shrank from 210 last summer to 174 over the winter, but it is growing again.

"This is great work," said Jim Deremer of Cumberland, a starter at the golf course.

Deremer 60, landed a job at Rocky Gap after logging 27 years at the now-defunct Kelly-Springfield tire factory in Allegany and three years at a missile plant in West Virginia, which also closed.

"You're outside," Deremer explained, "people are nice, and you have something in common with everyone who comes out here, and that's golf."

Pub Date: 5/13/99

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