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Officials speak out against closing Sideling Hill center

July 23, 2009|By ERIN JULIUS

Officials from Washington and Allegany counties spoke out Thursday against a state plan to close the Sideling Hill Exhibit Center, built where Interstate 68 cuts through a mountain west of Hancock.

Washington County Commissioner Kristin B. Aleshire is at the forefront of an attempt to save the center. On Thursday, he fired off an e-mail to more than 200 local politicians and tourism and business officials.

"I hope you will agree that the savings that will be achieved pale in comparison to the loss of this unique regional landmark and the economic benefit it brings to the many folks that travel this route for tourism, vacation, and general access to much of United States west of the mid-Atlantic seaboard," Aleshire wrote in the e-mail.

State officials on Wednesday announced the planned Aug. 15 closure as part of $280 million in cuts and fund transfers approved by the state Board of Public Works.

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Aleshire said he's been told that a representative from the governor's office would be willing to meet with interested people from Western Maryland in the next week or so.

Hancock Mayor Daniel A. Murphy said he made his concerns known to the governor's office Thursday.

"This is not good news for our little community out here," Murphy said.

He said some of those to whom he's talked are baffled by the decision to close the center.

Some are even talking about creating a "Friends of Sideling Hill" group to raise money, and one person suggested an online campaign on the Facebook Web site, Murphy said.

While no one has proposed a specific plan to keep the center open, officials contacted Thursday agreed it plays an important role in tourism in Western Maryland.

The exhibit center opened in 1991 at the site of a rock cut blasted through Sideling Hill in the 1980s to make way for the interstate. The cut exposed 810 feet of strata hundreds of millions of years old at what the Maryland Geological Survey Web site calls "one of the best rock exposures in Maryland and indeed in the entire northeastern United States."

The exhibit center includes a four-level geological museum with interpretive displays, a travel information center and platforms from which visitors can more closely observe and photograph the exposed rock.

Karen Hood, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, said Wednesday 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.

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 would 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.

"Dollar for dollar, you're getting a pretty huge bang for your buck economically," Aleshire said Thursday.

He said he wants to focus on sitting down with state officials and Allegany and Garrett County officials to try to come up with a reasonable solution.

At an operating cost of $110,000, he said, he'd like "to see if we can come up with a reasonable approach to keep this thing open."

Aleshire said he understands state budget limitations, but perhaps local governments could pool their resources.

"For this year, let's put our heads together and keep the doors open," he said.

David Eberly, acting Allegany County administrator, called Sideling Hill "a key asset to promoting tourism and business in Allegany County."

Eberly said, however, he would be wary of taking on new projects at this time, and stressed the need to be realistic. He said local governments are struggling right along with the federal and state governments.

He said he wants to make sure visitors continue to have access to tourism information when they stop at the welcome center's restrooms, which will remain open.

"We hope the exhibit center closing is only temporary. In the meantime, we'll rely on technology" to fill the void, Eberly said.

Thomas B. Riford, president of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said an electronic kiosk -- paid for with money from the Tri-County Council of Washington, Allegany and Garrett counties -- was installed at the site in 2008.

The touch-screen kiosk, which looks like an ATM, provides information about area attractions, places to eat and where to stay. It was meant to serve visitors stopping at the welcome center after hours, Riford said.

"I am glad that at least we have an alternate mechanism people can use," said Barb Buehl, director of tourism for Allegany County. "But that certainly doesn't totally replace the human touch."

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