CUMBERLAND — A state-authorized study that could lead to a decision on the future disposition of Canal Place is underway, however specifics on how to improve the tourism hub have been few thus far.
The state-owned, 11-acre tract that makes up Canal Place is being studied by a task force to determine if it should be divided into portions and sold to private investors or kept as is, with plans developed to improve cash flow and increase visitation to the attraction.
Canal Place was established in 1993 and is a blend of state- and federally-owned property. The state’s portion is the railway station, festival grounds and the land holding the Fairfield Inn, Footer building, Crabby Pig restaurant and shops. The water basin and a stretch of unfinished canal are all part of the federal C&O Canal National Historical Park.
The Shops at Canal Place, constructed around 2000, have proven to be a difficult site for business owners there.
The four-unit row of shops known as Building C consists of European Desserts, Simplee Kountry, Cumberland Railroad Museum and a space that is currently under development for food preparation by the Dig Deep Brewery, which is located in the adjacent Footer’s Dye Works Building.
Their placement is problematic for shop owners.
“They (the shops) are hard to see because of the interstate,” said Dee Dee Ritchie, who became executive director of Canal Place in 2012. “It was put back in there where no one can see it.”
Doug Hutchins, owner of the bicycle shop Cumberland Trail Connection at Canal Place, also sees the challenges.
“The shops are semi-cut off from the world,” he said. “Improving the shops would be good ... putting in a bathroom, that would be helpful.”
The shops in Building C also have no restrooms.
“They have sinks, but no bathrooms,” Ritchie said. “I’d like to see improvements. All those businesses should have their own restroom. The business owners have to close up their shops and go across to use the bathroom.”
Sherrie Ricker owns Simplee Kountry, which sells home decorations.
“You have to go outside and take the key; you have to close (your shop),” she said.
In addition to no bathrooms, the units in Building C have no rear entrance or window.
“They have no back doors or windows that would face the festival grounds,” Ritchie said. “They should have windows in back so they could serve out the back way. I don’t know why they (constructed the shops) the way they did.”
Another recurring issue for the tenants is a desire for more events at Canal Place to increase foot traffic.
“They could have more,” Hutchins said. “They went from having four or five events (per summer) to one big event.”
The River and Rails festival held at Canal Place Aug. 23 and 24 was well-attended.
“We had a very great weekend with that,” Ricker said. “If we could do that every weekend we would be all right.”
Ritchie said cost is the number one factor holding back events. Events for municipalities are often supported by programming grants. She said Canal Place has not been the recipient of programming grants in recent years.
“It takes money to put on events,” she said. “The grants are not available and when they are they require a (100%) matching (contribution) from us. Where do you get that?”
Ricker said the cost to rent the festival grounds and added charges are exorbitant. When organizations are not renting the festival grounds, the problem of lack of money and foot traffic is compounded.
“We shouldn’t be trying to make money on renting the property.” Ricker said. “We should be friendly to whoever wants to put something on there and work with them.”
Ricker said communication between Canal Place, the scenic railroad and the shop owners needs improvement.
“We need something to happen,” she said. “We are suffering here. We have a lot invested here. I won’t be here after December. I can’t survive; we don’t get any foot traffic. I hate it because I love Canal Place. Everyone knows it could be so much more.”
Ritchie said many issues stem from the failure to finish a planned rewatering of the C&O Canal attraction at Canal Place. The plan was started by the National Park Service but stopped during an economic downturn and never picked back up.
“They really need to finish what they started,” Ritchie said. “I really believe it would have been a wonderful draw. We are trying to get the rewatering going again.”
“If we would have gotten a rewatered canal,” he said, “we wouldn’t be having this conversation. There was a lack of follow through. Canal Place is a great resource. This is the trailhead. As far as being a place that people go: If this wasn’t here where would people go?”
A decision is expected from the state task force by December.
Follow staff writer Greg Larry on Twitter @GregLarryCTN.