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Hancock to take Sideling Hill Exhibit Center's displays

August 28, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

HANCOCK -- Just hours before the Sideling Hill Exhibit Center on Interstate 68 closed for good Friday, officials worked out a deal to move the center's exhibits to a new museum in Hancock.

The town will accept the center's geological displays and wildlife taxidermy exhibit on permanent loan from the state and show them in a Main Street space donated by Town Manager David Smith, Hancock Mayor Daniel A. Murphy said.

The new museum could open as early as this fall or winter, Murphy said.

The agreement followed a monthlong battle to keep the center open at its Sideling Hill site after state officials announced July 22 that it would be closed as a budget-cutting measure.

Many of the center's exhibits are connected to a 340-foot-deep rock cut outside the center that was formed in the early 1980s when a V-shaped wedge was blasted out of Sideling Hill to make way for Interstate 68. The blasting exposed layers of rock that are 350 million years old, according the to Department of Natural Resources.

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Unable to find the funding necessary to keep the center open, advocates ultimately turned their attention to keeping the center's collection open to the public, said Thomas B. Riford, president of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Riford, Murphy, Smith and Hancock Marketing Director T.R. Weaver Sr. met at the center Friday with officials from the state's tourism office, Maryland State Highway Administration, Maryland Department of Natural Resources and Maryland Geological Survey, who agreed to loan the exhibits permanently to the town, Riford said.

"The state has been incredibly generous in that basically anything and everything that we want, we're able to take in the exhibit areas," Murphy said.

That includes rock and fossil displays and an extensive taxidermy collection of wildlife found in Western Maryland, including a whitetail deer, a black bear, a bobcat and a wild turkey, he said.

The only piece that won't be transferred to the new center is a four-story-tall "time spiral," a curled timeline shaped like a giant drill bit that follows the earth's history, Riford said. The time spiral is too big for the Hancock museum space and is in need of a new home, he said.

The rest of the collection will be moved over the next few weeks to a roughly 2,000-square-foot space at 42 W. Main St., Murphy said.

Smith owns the building and had planned to donate an adjacent space, rent-free, to the Hancock Historical Society so it could move the town museum to a more visible location, Murphy said.

That collection will be next door to the Sideling Hill exhibits, in a 1,300 square-foot space at 46 W. Main St., Smith said.

The town is looking for volunteers to staff the museum, Murphy said. The state tourism office offered to train volunteers about the center's exhibits at no cost, he said.

The town will also have to come up with funding to pay the utilities for the museum space, Murphy said.

Riford said he would be working with the town to apply for grant funding to pay for utilities and other expenses. The town is designated as part of the Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area, which makes it eligible for grants for projects that "enhance the visitor's experience," so that is one possible funding source, Riford said.

The new museum in Hancock also will carry visitor information focusing on Washington County attractions, Murphy said.

Visitors will not have the benefit of looking directly out at the rock cut, but they will be able to stop and learn about it before driving the six miles to Sideling Hill, Murphy said.

At the same time, the highway signs directing tourists to the museum in Hancock could be a huge boon to revitalization efforts in the town, as visitors stop in for information and "maybe do a little shopping, and maybe fall in love with Hancock," Murphy said.

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