Allegany gives tourist resort mixed reviews

Some see economic boon, others see boondoggle

Complex has yet to make a dime

Having paid millions, Md. is spending millions more

October 19, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

FLINTSTONE - Six months ago, Shelley R. Miller was a park naturalist. Now she runs a booming business arranging outdoor adventures for tourists in and around the mountain-cradled Rocky Gap State Park.

She doubts she would have done so well so quickly without Rocky Gap Lodge & Golf Resort, which opened in 1998 with $54 million in state, local and private financing.

"The heart and soul and bulk of our business is tied directly to Rocky Gap," said Miller.

Miller loves this resort, just east of Cumberland in economically distressed Allegany County, but others here hate it.

The complex has lost $19 million, and critics say it's not worth the financial sacrifices that brought it to Western Maryland. They watch with jaundiced eyes as the state spends several million more on an expansion that hotel operators believe will turn things around for the resort.

"My people up here, the citizenry, are not enamored with Rocky Gap," said state Del. Kevin Kelly, an Allegany Democrat. "The county does not have the wherewithal to put up its match for school construction. It has come to light that the reason for that is that the county is carrying $4 million worth of debt on Rocky Gap."

For all the financial pain, its advocates argue that Rocky Gap is far from a traditional political boondoggle. They say the struggling resort is helping struggling Allegany County in ways obvious and subtle.

In the peak months from May to November, 300 people are employed to run the 217-room hotel, its two restaurants and the 18-hole golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus.

Every year, Rocky Gap pumps about $1.5 million into the local economy - spread among nearly 100 businesses, including a beer distributor and a computer operations business - and donates more than $100,000 to charity. Hotel officials estimate that each guest spends at least $25 while in town. Multiplied by roughly 55,000 people a year, that's nearly as much as the hotel spends.

Allegany economic development officials call the rustic lodge the county's "front door" and use it as a base for wooing businesses to the area. A cottage industry of outdoor sports and activities has grown up around the resort, brokered by Miller. Paintings for sale by local artists cover the walls inside, which makes the hotel the area's largest (though unofficial) retail gallery.

Local boosters say the complex is a boon primarily because it brings in conference-goers and vacationers who would otherwise have never ventured so far into Western Maryland - people with money to spend, people who might even think about moving there one day and helping Allegany County grow again. Its population has been shrinking for 50 years.

"It's been a tremendous thing for Cumberland," said Lee N. Fiedler, that city's mayor, who frequently pops over to the lodge to encourage guests to visit the city while they're nearby (and finds that a good number of them do). "Rocky Gap has given us a chance by drawing the people up here to see the area."

He thinks it's one of the best tourism investments the state has made in Allegany - nothing else keeps people around for more than a day - and that the government has done worse. An 8,000-seat amphitheater in the state park on which $1.4 million spent was completed last fall but hasn't been used for a performance.

Still, county officials took a risk on Rocky Gap by contributing $4.5 million in borrowed money - nearly twice as much with interest - for its construction. The results weren't what they anticipated. Fees collected from the resort, they thought, would cover the annual payment of about $425,000, but the county has ended up handling two-thirds of the bill itself because the lodge isn't doing well enough.

At that rate, it would take 50 years for Allegany to recoup its investment.

"If we ever get paid back, it'll be a couple generations," said Jerry Frantz, the county's finance director.

State Sen. John J. Hafer, a Western Maryland Republican, doesn't consider the resort an economic engine so much as an example of unrealized potential.

"Up to now it's been a losing proposition," he said.

Kelly is irritated that Maryland Economic Development Corp., the agency that developed the resort, did not invite local contractors to bid this year on the $4 million project to expand Rocky Gap's conference space and enclose its pool in an effort to attract bigger groups and lengthen its season. The successful bidder is from Frederick.

Hans F. Mayer, executive director of the development corporation, said he needed companies to guarantee a price before the final drawings were ready, and no business in Allegany is large enough to take that risk.

It's essential to finish the project quickly to help the hotel, he said. Rocky Gap might be hurting for business overall, but it's had to turn away groups for lack of space at peak times.

"I think the complaint is a little overdone," Mayer said.

People reaping direct benefits from Rocky Gap, at least, are very glad it opened. The impact of the place ripples out in unusual ways.

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