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Commissioners deny Sideling Hill funding

August 04, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- A proposal for Washington County to pay $53,000 to keep the Sideling Hill Exhibit Center open through the end of the fiscal year did not go over well Tuesday with the Washington County Commissioners.

Commissioner Kristin B. Aleshire suggested the plan as a way to buy time to work out a long-term funding solution, but Commissioners William J. Wivell, Terry Baker and John F. Barr said spending county money on the center would be irresponsible, given the county's limited budget.

Aleshire has been on the front lines of an effort to keep the center open since July 22, when state officials announced it would be closed Aug. 15 as part of a state budget-cutting process. The center, built where Interstate 68 cuts through a mountain west of Hancock, includes a four-level geological museum.

Advocates for the center worked out a deal last week that would push back the closure until at least Sept. 1 by cutting back the number of days a week it would be open.

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Delaying the center's closing is important because once the center is closed, it will be harder, if not impossible, to get it reopened, Aleshire said.

The county could keep the center open until June 30, 2010, with limited hours, for $53,000, Aleshire said.

As part of last week's agreement with the office of tourism, advocates for the center would have to find a funding source by Aug. 21 to keep it open past the end of the month, Aleshire said.

The commissioners do not have anymore meetings scheduled before that deadline, so their failure to commit funding Tuesday was a major setback for the push to keep the center open, Aleshire said.

Tom Riford, president of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, was more optimistic.

Riford was not at the commissioners' meeting, but he said he talked to some of them afterward. He said he thought the commissioners' opposition was to the idea of using money from the county's general fund to operate the center and that they might be more receptive to the idea of using money from the county's hotel-motel tax.

Keeping the center open would benefit the county's tourism industry, so it would be an appropriate use for hotel-motel tax funds, Riford said.

The county might not have to contribute the full $53,000, either, Riford said. Contributions from individual businesses, the convention and visitors bureau and other nonprofit groups could bring the price tag down somewhat, he said.

Though the commissioners do not meet before the deadline to find the funding, the county could still make a commitment to provide funding if Barr polled each commissioner and determined a majority were in favor of the idea, Riford said.

"We're not giving up yet," he said.

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