CUMBERLAND, MD. -- Gov. William Donald Schaefer toured Western Maryland last week, dispensing state grants and good cheer along the way. And as always, local officials greeted him as if he were a cross between a conquering hero and Santa Claus.
Schaefer is showing almost unprecedented interest and spending millions of dollars in this region of the state, but local officials fear it may not last forever. Although Western Maryland is large in size, only about 5 percent of the state's population lives here, and some fear a backlash from legislators from urban parts of the state who feel Schaefer is doing too much for the area.
"I tell everybody, 'Make hay while the sun shines,' " said Del. Casper Taylor (D-Allegany). "Because eventually he's going to have to turn his attention somewhere else."
Taylor has been among the officials most effusive in his praise of Schaefer, as when he told a crowd at Rocky Gap State Park last week that the governor's plan to bring the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to Western Maryland next summer is part of "the legacy Don Schaefer is creating in Western Maryland."
"He's a hero up here," Taylor said in an interview.
But Taylor also is pragmatic enough to know that there are rewards for Schaefer, too.
"He needed to show that he cared about all of the state, not just Baltimore," he said. "And we needed help."
Taylor added: "He's the kind of guy who will go where he's wanted."
Besides the adoration, there are political considerations for Schaefer, too. Although the governor constantly talks of "one Maryland," some politicians have speculated that adding solid support from Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore to his Baltimore base could allow Schaefer to virtually ignore the Washington suburbs, where he is uncomfortable and not as popular as he is in the rest of the state.
Even before he was elected, Schaefer helped put together a plan to keep Kelly-Springfield -- the largest employer in an area that consistently has an unemployment rate at least double that of the rest of Maryland -- from moving its headquarters to another state. The state is spending about $16 million to build a new headquarters for the company and for transportation improvements in the area.
In addition, Schaefer has:Accelerated the completion of the National Freeway, so that the region will be linked to the rest of the state by a four-lane highway. Supported the successful effort to confer "university" status on what was Frostburg State College. Allocated state money for improvements at Cumberland Airport and begun planning for a new access road to the facility. Supported the efforts to build a hotel and conference center at Rocky Gap, and pledged state funds to build a golf course there. Agreed to locate a Motor Vehicle Administration customer service telephone center in Allegany County, and endorsed the idea of building a state prison in the county, both to provide new jobs.
The cost of these and other initiatives unveiled on the governor's recent three-day trip is estimated by his staff at $186 million, not including the Kelly-Springfield initiative.
Schaefer said he was only helping an area that is helping itself. And most important, he said, is the "psychological" lift the area receives from knowing that the state wants to help.
Sen. John Bambacus, a Republican who represents much of Western Maryland, agrees. Garrett County is so far from the rest of the state that it receives its television broadcasts from stations in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and its residents root for the Pittsburgh Pirates rather than the Baltimore Orioles, Bambacus said.
Schaefer has helped bridge the distance with his frequent trips to the area and the offer of state help, Bambacus said. "If the governor wants to pay attention to us, we'll take it," he said.