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Deal keeps Sideling Hill center open until Sept. 1

July 29, 2009|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- The Sideling Hill visitor center got a reprieve Wednesday, when local and state leaders worked out a deal to save it from closing next month.

Long-range details aren't set, but participants at a meeting Wednesday said they have several possibilities to pursue.

The state planned to shut the visitor center west of Hancock on Aug. 15 as part of $280 million in budget cuts the state Board of Public Works approved last week. Only restrooms and a kiosk with travel information would have remained.

Under Wednesday's agreement, the state funding to keep it open six days a week until Aug. 15 would instead last until Sept. 1 by operating it only four days a week.

By Sept. 1, state and county government and tourism officials expect to have a more permanent plan. It might involve government funding, volunteers, grants, sponsorship or help from local businesses.

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Hancock Mayor Daniel A. Murphy said someone suggested a "Friends of Sideling Hill" group to raise money.

Thomas B. Riford, president and CEO of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention & Visitors Bureau, said another idea is having one of his employees work there one day a week.

Local leaders say the Sideling Hill center is unique and important because of its gateway spot in Western Maryland and its four-level geologicial museum. It was described Wednesday as a tourist destination rather than a rest area.

It cost the state about $110,000 to operate the center in fiscal year 2009.

With the center open fewer days, local governments and groups will have less operating money to raise and fewer staff hours to make up.

Government and tourism officials from the state, Washington County, the town of Hancock, Allegany County and Garrett County attended Wednesday's meeting at the Washington County office building on West Washington Street. Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr. and state Sen. George C. Edwards were there, too.

A reporter was not allowed to sit in.

Such a quick, focused negotiation was unusual for a wide array of entities, Riford said.

Washington County Commissioner Kristin B. Aleshire said local and state entities probably will have to invest money, time or other resources.

Aleshire drummed up support for the center after the closure was announced last week, sending an e-mail plea to more than 200 local politicians and tourism and business officials. He said Wednesday the effort to save the center is on the right path.

Speaking by phone after the meeting, Myers said he heard good suggestions for the center. He said the one full-time and three part-time employees now are expected to keep their jobs.

Hannah Lee Byron, an assistant Department of Business & Economic Development secretary for tourism, film and the arts, who also attended the meeting, said the state has had agreements with other agencies to keep visitor centers open.

Starting next week, the center will be open Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Before that, the state trimmed the center's hours of operation, also as a cost-saving measure.

Hancock is happy to keep the Sideling Hill visitor center going and glad to see the range of support, lessening the burden on the town, Murphy said.

"With all of the hits we've taken economically ... tourism is basically what we've got," he said.

Last week, on the first day Gov. Martin O'Malley's office set up a Web site for public comments on budget cuts, Murphy posted his concerns, according to Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for the governor.

"So yes, the Governor was aware of the concerns early on and we asked (the Department of Business & Economic Development) to see if anything could be done," Abbruzzese wrote in an e-mail.

Riford said state officials will prepare an estimate of the cost of keeping the center running after Sept. 1 and a timetable of when it needs the money.

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