Cambridge happy to have `Hyatt-itis'

With a new resort hotel, the region hopes fiscal success is contagious.

August 25, 2002|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

CAMBRIDGE - From his gift gallery atop the Place on Race Cafe, Kim Elzey has seen people open businesses downtown, struggle and give up. He believes they left too soon.

"Businesses have come and gone, but they weren't here at the right time," said Elzey. "Every couple of months, something new is opening up. ... It's starting to show that things are changing for the better."

Faced with decades of decline, industry flight and high unemployment, Cambridge might be on the brink of a revitalization, many here say. Some joke that people have caught "Hyatt-itis," referring to the 400-room Chesapeake Hyatt Regency Resort set to open Thursday after a history of delays.

"It's the biggest thing to hit this area since they built the Choptank River bridge [now a fishing pier] in 1935," said Roger Webster, whose family has owned Webster's general store for more than 60 years.

Nestled along a mile-long stretch of waterfront on the Choptank River, the $74.4 million Hyatt is the Eastern Shore's first full-service, year-round resort, and one of only three in Maryland. It will offer an 18-hole golf course, 150-slip marina, 18-acre nature preserve, four pools and a European health spa.

More development is planned. The resort's second phase, which has no time frame, is supposed to add 450 townhouses and single-family homes on the resort's 342 acres.

But the Hyatt is seen as more than just a luxury hotel. It's an opportunity, many say, for the region to pull itself out of an economic quagmire, to spur tourism, commercial and residential development and to lure new businesses.

The Hyatt "will have a lot of people who need food, liquor, provisions of all sorts, to keep the place going," said Hans F. Mayer, executive director of the Maryland Economic Development Corp., the quasi-public state agency that financed and owns the hotel. "There's no question it's an economic driver."

Dorchester County's 30,000 residents look to seafood processing, manufacturing and farms for jobs, but many of the companies connected to those industries have left or scaled back in recent years. The county's 8.3 percent unemployment rate trails only Baltimore's in the state, and 10 percent of Dorchester families live below the poverty line.

Jobs are so scarce in the area that 1,200 people applied for about 300 jobs at the Hyatt, taking such positions as house cleaners, masseurs, engineers, landscapers, bartenders and cooks. As of Aug. 9, the Hyatt had hired 304 people, said Michael T. Walsh, the Hyatt's general manager. The resort's second phase will bring 300 to 400 more jobs, Hyatt officials said.

The jobs pay from $6.75 to $14 an hour, and 90 percent are full time and offer benefits such as medical, dental, optical and 401(k) investment plan, Walsh said.

The new jobs at the Hyatt, however, might be offset by job cuts at other area companies.

Late next month, a sauce-making plant run by Kraft Foods' Nabisco division in Cambridge is to close, putting about 100 people out of work. Also, a Black & Decker Corp. plant in nearby Easton plans to eliminate 450 positions - about a third of the work force there - though a time hasn't been set for those layoffs.

Dividends already

For area small businesses, though, the Hyatt already is paying dividends. The resort has contracted with local vendors for a variety of goods and services, from sailing lessons and laundry services to flowers to seafood to produce, Walsh said.

That approach is helping small businesses such as Craig Bilodeau's Cambridge Sailing School expand and diversify. Bilodeau said he has a deal with the Hyatt to offer small boat rentals, instruction and charters to the resort's guests.

"The Hyatt will definitely increase the traffic in Cambridge and give us more exposure," Bilodeau said. "More students will be drawn to the school because they'll want to take advantage of the accommodations the Hyatt offers."

Leland C. Weldon, a Cambridge city councilman, said the Hyatt will provide opportunities for entrepreneurs to develop new businesses.

"It's probably impossible to sit here and make a projection of what the impact is going to be," he said. "I think it's going to be overwhelmingly positive."

Some in Cambridge are more reserved and have adopted a wait-and-see view of the Hyatt project.

"I'm glad the Hyatt is here," said Enez Stafford Grubb, head of the Cambridge Community Development Corp. "I think it will be good for the county and the area. However, it's not going to benefit as many people as we would like. ... We need more industry because industry has a tendency to pay more."

"There's too much hopelessness here," Grubb added. "It's very difficult to get a decent job. It's very difficult to get a job, period."

The Rev. Leon B. Hall Sr., pastor of Bethel AME Church, said he has mixed feelings about the Hyatt project.

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