Cumberland Times-News

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January 15, 2014

Canal Place gets $116,000 from state; officials debate future of operations

CUMBERLAND — Twelve local, county and state officials including representatives from the Canal Place Preservation and Development Authority met Wednesday in Annapolis to discuss the future of Canal Place.

Canal Place has been struggling financially and has been unsuccessful in efforts to establish a revenue stream for the tourism hub.

Although it was revealed Wednesday that $116,000 has been placed in the governor’s budget for operation of the tourism center, it was clear from the meeting that the future of Canal Place will be anything but business as usual.

“This delegation does not need to get saddled with another Rocky Gap,” said Del. Kevin Kelly.

Kelly was referring to the many years the District 1 legislative delegation spent trying to stem the flow of red ink coming from the Rocky Gap Lodge before casino officials stepped in to purchase the resort.

The Annapolis meeting was hosted by the delegation, including Kelly, Sen. George Edwards and delegates Wendel Beitzel and LeRoy Myers. Also attending were Cumberland Mayor Brian Grim, county commissioners Bill Valentine and Mike McKay, commission president.

Amanda Stakem Conn, Israel Patoka and Chris Uhl from the state and Dee Dee Ritchie and Rick Thayer from the Canal Place authority also attended.

The officials basically agreed that a current effort to secure a developer for the Footer Dye Works building, located on the 11-acre Canal Place property, may be the final effort to save the historic structure.

The Footer building, which has been vacant for several years, has struggled to gain financial and political backing for its future viability.

“I believe it’s the last chance we have,” said Grim.

The state representatives were also supportive of seeing the current efforts through to find a developer.

The Canal Place authority obtained state and federal tax credits for Footer and tied a neighboring parcel, which offers a parking area, into the package. Canal Place officials also had a structural study done on the building that the officials say found the building to be sound.

Thayer, the current chair of the Canal Place board, agreed with the realities facing the Footer project.

“If we don’t find a developer, then I think we have to consider all the options including tearing it down,” said Thayer.

The Maryland Historical Trust will also have a say in the ultimate fate of the Footer project.

As for the Canal Place operation, Kelly feels the board at the tourism hub has not been able to deliver.

Kelly wants to see the Canal Place authority terminated and wants the operation managed by elected officials who are directly accountable to the taxpayers.

Opinions on future management of the tourism hub diverged into a variety of opinions at the meeting.

“The basic charge of Canal Place is the facility management and the management of the heritage area,” said McKay.

McKay supports a plan by Kelly that calls for Canal Place to be managed jointly by the city and the county.

“The county would be interested in managing the heritage area and its marketing,” said McKay.

However, Grim would not commit to accepting the responsibility of operating the Canal Place facility.

“I want to proceed with caution. The city has placed a great deal of time and energy into bringing the city into the black,” said Grim.

It was recently publicized that Cumberland’s budget was in the black for the first time since 2007. But, Grim did not close the door to assisting in the operation of Canal Place.

“The city will consider any options that are put together,” said Grim.

Grim and McKay agreed to work together to explore options for Canal Place.

Several officials expressed concern about the continued direction of Canal Place.

Kelly asked the Canal Place officials how much the three employees of Canal Place made in salaries and benefits. In a Times-News interview after the meeting, Kelly said he was surprised by what he heard.

“They said that the three employees make $211,000 in salary and benefits a year. The state’s $116,000 won’t come close to covering that,” said Kelly.

Kelly also pointed out the authority’s only solution is to keep asking the state for money while it struggles to remain solvent.

“No business or state model can continue to operate like this,” said Myers.

Edwards doesn’t see the operation becoming a success under the state.

“I don’t want the state in it anymore. If they can’t step up and fund it, let’s get it in someone else’s hands,” said Edwards.

Greg Larry can be contacted at glarry@times-news.com.

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