Legislator Is a Redevelopment Engine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 18, 1998; Page E01
FLINTSTONE, Md., April 17 There were two governors, a host of dignitaries and a crowd of well-wishers gathered inside the new resort hotel by the sparkling lake at the foot of Evitts Mountain today.
But the man of the moment "our hero," as Gov. Parris N. Glendening put it was a slightly stooped and portly figure in a gray sport coat and gold-rimmed glasses, who had been waiting for this blustery spring day for 12 years.
Indeed, for Casper R. Taylor Jr., 63, the speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, the formal ribbon cutting for the six-story, 220-room Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort was the culmination of a long effort to use the power and wealth of government to revive one of the most economically troubled regions in the state.
More than a decade in the making, the controversial $54 million resort, amid the beauty of Rocky Gap State Park, is the latest gem that Taylor (D-Allegany) has been able steer toward his constituents in Western Maryland.
Although it includes a Jack Nicklaus-designed, 7,100-yard golf course, set to open this summer, the resort is a risky venture financed through high-yield, state-issued junk bonds. It is heavily dependent on the projected patronage of thousands of out-of-town customers not usually known to frequent Western Maryland.
As such, it is a testament to the extraordinary political power that Taylor has brought to bear for Western Maryland.
It is a power born of 25 years of artful schmoozing in the General Assembly, first as a obscure delegate from a remote part of Maryland, later as a close friend of former governor William Donald Schaefer, and since 1994, as House Speaker.
In that time, Taylor has managed to help direct hundreds of millions of dollars in state, federal and private investment toward Western Maryland, providing, among other things, two prisons, several highway projects, tourism and heritage ventures, a music festival and a giant power plant, in addition to the resort.
Such actions have earned Taylor comparisons to U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, of nearby West Virginia, who has a national reputation for steering federal projects and jobs toward home.
"Somebody might not like that," Taylor says of the reference, "but I consider that a compliment."
Timothy F. Maloney, a former Democratic delegate from Prince George's County and close Taylor friend, calls the speaker a "one-man economic recovery administration."
"If you close your eyes and try to picture Western Maryland without Cas Taylor, it would be a much different and much poorer place," Maloney said.
Yet Taylor's crusade has raised some questions, and earned him enemies along the way. In recent weeks, for instance, Taylor has come under attack for the way some of the state projects he has promoted have financially benefited a close friend. The speaker dismisses the criticism out of hand.
There are also larger questions about whether Taylor's economic development strategy, geared largely to making Western Maryland a tourist destination, will simply leave the region with a string of costly white elephants. The Rocky Gap resort, for example, will require the annual patronage of about 30,000 largely well-to-do, out-of-town golfers to survive, according to projections.
Hans F. Mayer, executive director of the Maryland Economic Development Corporation, which helped arrange the financing, says the resort is a potential destination for 13 million people in the nearby metropolitan areas of Washington, Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
But skeptics note that the trip to Cumberland is still a drive of at least two hours from each place, and if enough golfers and hotel guests don't come, the project could be a bust.
"It's a beautiful facility. I hope it's successful," said John Bambacus, the Republican mayor of nearby Frostburg and a political opponent of Taylor's. "But there are concerns I have about its economic viability. The taxpayers are going to get stuck with this thing if they don't reach their projections."
Taylor hails from a part of the state that is officially Appalachia; Cunard steamships once used "Cumberland" coal exclusively. During much of his childhood, Taylor lived above his father's crossroads restaurant in Clarysville along the old national highway west of Cumberland.
In an area where the ghostly portals of abandoned coal mines still yawn from hillsides, and chilly air blows through the broken windows of deserted factories, Taylor said he has has wielded his political power and acumen only to resurrect an economy ruined by declining manufacturing jobs.
"As I was growing up, the backbone of the local economy was local factories," he said. "And one by one, they were leaving."
While his upbringing was more lace-curtain than working-class -- Taylor took piano lessons, studied oratory, and went Christmas shopping in Baltimore -- he says he never forgot the plight of poorer neigbhors who lacked indoor plumbing or the wherewithal to pay the bills.
"Beyond anything else, that has motivated me all my life to do what I'm doing," Taylor says. "My parents always taught me that because we were as fortunate as we were, we had a responsibility to other people."
Taylor said that as a college student he was always struck by the contrast when he would ride the B&O's Capital Limited home from Notre Dame back to the crumbling grandeur of the old Queen City Station and the poverty and isolation of 1950s Cumberland.
"It was just startling reality, the difference," he said. "When you see the poverty around you -- and it's still there -- people who live in metropolitan Maryland and have never been that far west don't understand."
For much of his adult life, Taylor ran a restaurant-bar in Cumberland, but he has sold the tavern and now concentrates on his duties as one of the state's three most powerful elected officials.
His efforts in Annapolis involve relentless lobbying to replace the long-departed smokestack industries of Western Maryland with modern service businesses, light industry and tourism -- often with the grease of government money.
In downtown Cumberland, for example, work has begun on Canal Place -- a tourism and heritage project designed, among other things, to resurrect the city's old C&O canal terminus to the tune of $87 million. "It's history-making," said Taylor, who engineered the bill creating the Canal Place Authority.
Work has also begun on a 1.7-mile, $30 million federally funded parkway that is to run from near the canal development to the region's municipal airport just across the Potomac River in West Virginia.
"I had everything to do with it," he said.
On Cumberland's south side -- below the I-68 highway he pushed -- a new $405 million coal-fired electric generating plant is under construction. Supporters say the project will pump $3 billion into the local economy over the next several decades. Taylor helped lure it from Pennsylvania. "That's part of our future," he said.
Nearby are the new $65-million minimum- and medium-security federal prison and the new $113-million medium-security state prison, next door to the spot where the new $60 million maximum security state prison is planned. "Worked real hard" on them, Taylor said.
Then there is the new $7.2 million YMCA, built with $1 million of state money; the $20-million, state-funded Kelly-Springfield tire company headquarters; and the Old Depot restaurant in nearby Frostburg that the state is buying for $600,000 to help the local tourist railroad, which has been funded with more than $5 million in state and local money in the last 10 years.
All this, in one way and another, has happened because of the innkeeper's son who says he vowed years before to better his native region through what he calls the "political science."
Wayne R. Johnson, a newly appointed Republican county commissioner from neighboring, and less fortunate, Garrett County, said: "I don't want to get into a fight with Cas Taylor. We may need Cas Taylor."
That much of the cash for his endeavor comes from Maryland taxpayers has raised eyebrows. But experts say that sometimes in remote, economically depressed areas, the distribution of political pork can work as an effective redevelopment tool.
"While I don't think it is great public policy," said Jeffrey A. Finkle, executive director of the Washington-based Council for Urban Development, "it has been extraordinarily effective for some regions of this country, where somebody has been in a powerful position to leverage government investment to create jobs in their community."
"For remote places," he said, "often times it's the only type of investments they're going to get. And if they've got a well-positioned state legislator? State legislators are going to be reelected because they bring home the bacon."
Taylor said he took up the science of politics 25 years ago because "I wanted to be able to do something about the people in Western Maryland."
"I was fortunate enough to be exposed to the outside world," he said. "I could see what was out there. My people were never exposed to it and never participated in it. And that's wrong, and I wanted to try to do something about that."
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