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Editorial: Lessons from the Rocky Gap boondoggle

Perhaps the best that can be said about the casino at Rocky Gap is that it has already produced one winner: the state itself, which was able to rid itself of the ill-conceived albatross that was the Rocky Gap Lodge & Golf Resort.

The latest initiative includes new management by Evitts Resort LLC (a subsidiary of Minnesota-based Lakes Entertainment) and the opening this week of 550 slot machines and 10 tables of games like blackjack and roulette.

The thinking is that if quality golf and a bucolic environment weren’t a sufficient lure, the addition of gambling will be enough to persuade residents of Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania to make the hours-long drive along interstates 70 and 68.

Maybe it will and the state can save some face regarding the resort, which has been a consistent money-loser since development began in earnest in the mid-1990s.

At the very least, the state and the entity that operated Rocky Gap, the Maryland Economic Development Corp., did themselves a big favor in unloading the resort after approval of the casino last year. Now, Maryland can write off the $60 million in capital costs that have never been repaid and can rid itself of the public headache generated by critics who, with good reason, have said the state should not be in the resort business.

“I voted to approve the [sale] only because the state was getting soaked,” Comptroller Peter Franchot said last week.

There’s an important lesson to be learned from the Rocky Gap boondoggle, and that’s one related to the tricky balance of good governance and politics, which can be mutually exclusive at times.

Looking at the history of Rocky Gap, it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that it was a political, not business-driven, creation from the outset. Its vocal champion, then-House of Delegates Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., took out an ad in the local newspaper celebrating the end of his 15-year crusade for Rocky Gap. In it, he said the resort would be a “source of new jobs and new economic benefits to Western Maryland.”

That dream simply hasn’t been realized. Allegany County is shrinking population-wise (it stands at 74,000) and its median household income trails the state, $39,000 to $72,000. The unemployment rate there is 8 percent, statistically significantly more than the state’s 6.6 percent.

Robert C. Brennan, MEDCO’s executive director, in a candid interview, told The Daily Record this week that the project was troubled from the start, saying: “Basically, we were charged with creating a tourist destination where there was none.”

So, what is the takeaway from this mess? It’s simple, really: When it comes to economic investments, minimizing the role of politics, to the extent possible, will lead to more positive outcomes.

To bring this full circle, the state is now studying whether to allow hydraulic fracturing for the extraction of natural gas in Western Maryland. That study, along with all of fracking’s fits and starts, has been rife with politics. However, the economic benefits to jurisdictions in other states that have allowed fracking are easily recognizable and significant.

A greater gift to a viable economic future in Western Maryland than a glossy, but hollow resort initiative would be to expedite and ensure a fair look at fracking, which holds far greater promise to revitalize Maryland’s depressed coal country.