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Sideling Hill Exhibit Center to close

July 22, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

HANCOCK -- The Sideling Hill Exhibit Center on Interstate 68 west of Hancock will close Aug. 15 due to state budget cuts, state officials said Wednesday.

The exhibit center, which opened in 1991 at the site of a deep rock cut, includes a four-level geological museum and travel information center.

It is one of two Maryland welcome centers selected for closure as part of an extensive cost-cutting effort to address the state budget deficit, according to a press release from Gov. Martin O'Malley's office.

The state's board of public works approved more than $280 million in state budget reductions Wednesday, the release said.

Karen Hood, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, said the Sideling Hill center and the Bay Country Welcome Center in Queen Anne's County were selected for closure because they had the highest cost per visitor.

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The Sideling Hill center cost $110,000 to operate in fiscal year 2009 and served 95,000 visitors, for a cost of about $1.16 per visitor, Hood said.

Closing the two centers will save the department $392,226 in fiscal year 2010, Hood said.

One full-time and three part-time employees will be laid off from the Sideling Hill center, she said.

Thomas B. Riford, president of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, called the decision "a real shame" and said while it might save the state some money, it will have a negative economic impact on the state's tourism industry.

Research has shown that a visitor who stops at a welcome center and gets information spends, on average, $288 more per day than one who does not, Riford said.

With the state's Interstate 70 welcome centers in Myersville closed for reconstruction until the spring of 2010 and a temporary welcome center at Prime Outlets recently closed, Sideling Hill is the only state welcome center that really serves Western Maryland, Riford said.

After Sideling Hill closes, the closest state welcome center to Washington County will be the Mason Dixon Discovery Center in Emmitsburg on U.S. 15, and travelers on that route usually are not bound for Washington County, Riford said.

"We still have our visitor center in downtown Hagerstown, but we don't see the unique, huge amount of travelers that the ones on the interstates receive," Riford said.

Riford said the local convention and visitors bureau distributed more than 25,000 brochures and visitors guides at the Sideling Hill center last year.

Hood, whose department includes the state tourism office, said the decision to close the centers was not easy, but it was necessary.

"Unfortunately, there just had to be some decisions made," she said.

"Every department had to submit some budget recommendations, areas where we felt we could trim our budget, and this was what we put forth," Hood said.

The Department of Business and Economic Development also cut nine positions, reduced some grant funding and cut back on tourism promotion, among other cuts, according to a list provided by the governor's office.

Washington County Commissioners President John F. Barr said he was shocked to hear about the planned closure. He said he thought the center had been one of the most frequently visited locations along the interstate.

The center, which formerly was staffed by the state Department of Natural Resources, includes a taxidermic display of animals found in Western Maryland, a time spiral showing geological events over the earth's history, and exhibits related to the rock cut and how it changed transportation.

The cut was blasted in the early 1980s to make way for I-68 and exposed rocks hundreds of millions of years old. Researchers have come from all over the world to take advantage of the rock formation's easy access, Riford said.

The center is a common field trip for school children and the town of Hancock considers it one of its local treasures, said Hancock Mayor Daniel A. Murphy, who said he was saddened by the news of its closure.

"It's another blow for our little community up here, because we need every little help we can get to entice (people) in and stop 'em when they're rolling by," Murphy said.

Restrooms and a kiosk with travel information will remain at the site, Hood said.

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