Effort to save Sideling Hill center fails

August 20, 2009|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

A final effort to save the Sideling Hill visitor center west of Hancock has failed. After Aug. 30, the center will close, a victim of state budget cuts.

Local officials tried to find $53,000 to keep the center running until June 30, 2010, but nothing worked.

Two weeks ago, a majority of the Washington County Commissioners didn't support using money from the county's general fund.

An alternate idea, discussed as late as Thursday, was diverting money the county is contributing to a new program to help businesses get government contracts. That idea also failed.

On Thursday afternoon, Thomas B. Riford, president and CEO of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention & Visitors Bureau, notified Marci Wolff Ross, the assistant director of product development for the state's Office of Tourism Development.

The deadline for a local commitment to save the visitor center was today.

"We just can't make the deadline," Riford said Thursday.


Local leaders have called the four-level geological museum unique and a valuable tourism attraction for Western Maryland.

Restrooms and a kiosk with travel information will remain open.

The town of Hancock has expressed interest in taking the geological display so it would remain accessible to the public.

In July, the state announced the Interstate 68 exhibit center would close Aug. 15 as part of $280 million in state budget cuts.

When local and state leaders gathered to fight for the center, the state granted a temporary reprieve. State officials agreed to cut the days of operation from six to four, letting the center stay open two extra weeks.

Wolff Ross said Thursday the state won't reopen the center if it finds more money.

Commissioner Kristin B. Aleshire, an early and vocal advocate for saving the center, was resigned earlier Monday that it would close.

"I think it's done," he said.

The most promising idea still being considered this week involved redirecting money earmarked for a regional economic development program.

The Tri-County Council for Western Maryland -- which includes Washington, Allegany and Garrett counties -- is seeking U.S. Department of Defense money for a center to help businesses sell products or services to the federal government.

The federal money requires a matching contribution. In this case, to get $225,000, the Tri-County Council is putting up $75,000, or $25,000 from each county.

The council could get $225,000 a year for additional years, said Leanne Mazer, the council's executive director.

She said the council was told in October it would get the federal money. However, the terms are still being discussed and the deal could fall through, she said.

Aleshire suggested Washington County use $50,000 -- two years of its matching money -- to save Sideling Hill.

The Convention & Visitors Bureau pledged another $3,500 each of those two years.

Allegany and Garrett counties didn't want to withdraw their matching money, Mazer said.

Another obstacle was time. Riford said Washington County's matching money is locked into the procurement assistance program; an audit would have been required to withdraw it.

Earlier this week, Washington County Commissioner James F. Kercheval said he wanted Allegany and Garrett counties to share the cost of saving the exhibit center because they benefit from it, too.

But Allegany County Commissioners Bob Hutcheson and Jim Stakem said their county can't contribute.

"There isn't money," Hutcheson said.

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