Md. panel backs 4 big projects for Garrett, Allegany

North-south interstate is among proposals for giving region a boost

July 17, 2004|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Seeing large-scale investments as part of the solution for economic distress in Western Maryland, a state commission called yesterday for constructing a dam, a coal-fired power plant, a wind tower manufacturing facility and a major north-south highway to help boost the state's two most mountainous counties.

The Western Maryland Economic Development Commission, filled with business and economic development leaders from Allegany and Garrett, is an example of the increasing joint effort by the two counties to attract attention - from tourists, corporations and Annapolis politicians.

The group got one payoff yesterday: Its report was presented at the end of a daylong tour of the area by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who announced $38 million in financing for road projects there, including a bypass around Oakland.

"Historically, especially in Allegany County ... we tended to approach the future with a certain amount of despair," said Dave Williams, president of McClarran & Williams in Cumberland, a marketing and communications firm helping promote the area. Now, "there's a rising kind of optimism here that the world is coming our way."

Allegany has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state - an average of 7.8 percent this year - but that's better than it was during the boom years of the 1990s. And though Garrett has an average of 7.1 percent unemployment for the year, joblessness dropped to 4.7 percent in May as its tourism-fueled economy headed into summer.

Because both counties are working to market themselves as tourist destinations, the commission also suggested that Allegany and Garrett brand themselves as "Mountain Maryland." It wants license plates, road signs and an awareness campaign with the slogan.

That's all about creating an identity to which people with hazy conceptions of the counties can relate, said Vickie Swink, economic development coordinator for the city of Cumberland.

The term suggests "ease and calmness" to her, and she hopes it will get out-of-towners thinking of the area as a getaway opportunity.

The big-ticket items advocated by the commission might seem to be a harder sell, but they're not coming out of left field.

There's already a coal-fired power plant just outside Cumberland. Attracting another one makes sense to Peggy Jamison, a Garrett economic development specialist, because both counties mine the mineral.

She said a wind tower manufacturing plant would also dovetail with the local economy because several companies are interested in erecting electricity-producing windmill farms in Garrett.

Del. Kevin Kelly, an Allegany Democrat, wouldn't mind if a dam were constructed in his area because he figures it would - in a smaller way -bring to that county a taste of the affluence sloshing out from Deep Creek Lake in Garrett.

As for the north-south highway, the counties have been lobbying for such an interstate for years.

Swink said they've lost out on "many" employment opportunities because they only have an east-west route - unlike Washington County, which has both and is booming.

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