Cumberland Times-News

Local News

May 5, 2014

Local businessman’s plan to develop along river gets complicated

CUMBERLAND — Local businessman George Merling wants to expand his investment in Cumberland by adding a recreational park along South Johnson Street, complete with a 50-kayak boat dock, vendor stations and a restaurant.

However, his early attempts and access to the levee and river have left him wondering if he will receive cooperation from city officials for his project.

“If they let me, I will put in park benches, a couple gazebos, clean it out and make it nice. It will be first-class and on my money,” said Merling.

Merling is the owner of Merling Sports at 100 Beall St. His sports souvenir and memorabilia store, which also sells merchandise online, is located in the 15,000-square-foot, three-story brick structure that was the former location of the Loyal Order of the Moose.

“This project could add around 20 jobs for the city,” said Merling, “With some help, I can do it.”

Mayor Brian Grim thinks that Merling has an interesting plan.

“His ideas and vision is promising. We have to see if we can work through the hurdles,” said Grim.

With his business and parking lot located along the Potomac River right off Interstate 68, Merling saw an opportunity. He noticed that the stretch of flat water that runs from the Allegany County Fairgrounds to the Blue Bridge dam is conducive for boating.

“It’s the most gorgeous 5-mile float. It’s perfect for families,” said Merling, an avid fisherman.

Merling wants to add steps and a railing up the levee and a wooden ramp down to the water’s edge to be used as a boat dock. With a parking lot adjacent to his business, he would add vendors and eventually a restaurant on the second floor of his building. The top of the levee would also become a natural walking path that would connect to George Washington’s Headquarters and the foot bridge to Canal Place.

“It would allow it all to become connected,” said Merling.

The Merling Sports business does $2 million a year trading in NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and NCAA merchandise, according to Merling.

“I’m willing to use my money to do this,” he said.

However, his first contact with city officials did not go as expected. Wanting to add an easy ascent up the levee, Merling had a concrete brick staircase installed on the embankment beside his business.

“I admit, I didn’t check first. I was doing it for safety reasons. I thought they’d be happy; walking up the grass is terrible,” he said.

However, city officials asked him to remove the steps from the levee. Created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the levee is federal property that is maintained by the city through a maintenance agreement.

Merling said the city officials also began to check out his sheds and look around his building. He was frustrated with their demeanor.

“I’m asking for a friendly, pro-business attitude. I’m not asking for special treatment,” said Merling.

David Curry, operations manager for the public works department, was the official who asked Merling to remove the steps.

“When you build a house you need to go through the respective agencies and follow plans. He had no plans, he just went ahead and did it. I agree he has a good concept, provided he can make it work,” said Curry.

Grim said there are a lot of rules when dealing with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“Anything that touches that levee system is going to get complicated,” said Grim.

Merling said he’s ready to go if city officials will help.

“I am willing to make contacts for him, but he will have to go through the process,” said Grim.

Merling is not seeking a permit for bathing from the Allegany County Health Department given the history of toxic dumping that occurred in the river during the industrial years.

“Were not talking about bathing. This will be for boating,” said Merling.

The project could be a positive for the people of Cumberland and tourism, he said.

“It’s a great resource. I love this river and I think it’s beautiful and it’s neglected.”

“I am supportive if he can get the necessary permits. The concept is wonderful,” said Dee Dee Ritchie, executive director of Canal Place.

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

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