FLINTSTONE, Maryland — The flashy jangle of slot machines is a far cry from the stillness of Rocky Gap State Park in western Maryland, but state and local leaders are betting that this week's planned casino opening will transform a struggling lakeside lodge into the economic engine its planners envisioned 15 years ago.
Lakes Entertainment Inc. of Minnetonka, Minnesota, aims to open the gambling parlor Wednesday through its Evitts Resort LLC subsidiary. It will offer 558 slot machines and 10 table games in converted conference space at the newly rechristened Rocky Gap Casino Resort, 130 miles west of Baltimore.
The casino opening is contingent on a successful demonstration of gambling operations Monday for the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency.
The casino, Maryland's fourth, will add 250 jobs at the resort, where employment historically has ranged from about 100 in the winter to 400 in the summer.
General Manager Scott Just, a Lakes Entertainment vice president, said the casino was designed to be in harmony with the rustic character of the hotel, formerly the Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort, and its Appalachian setting.
"While we want to get some movement and animation, we tried to stay a little more subtle so it fits in. We want it to obviously be a casino when you walk in, but we also want it to be a comfortable and warm place, just like the lodge is," Just said.
Reporters were barred from seeing the casino until after it's been approved by state regulators.
The company's license to offer gambling and booze, 24-7, is bound to bring changes to the resort along Interstate 68, near the Pennsylvania state line. The Maryland Park Service has installed a median to separate resort-bound visitors from those heading to picnic and beach areas, or to the 278 campsites and nearly 1,500 acres of public hunting grounds across Lake Habeeb.
Scott said the casino won't have big, outdoor signs like those at Maryland Live! In Anne Arundel County, the state's largest casino with 4,750 slots. A park rule prohibits even campfires after 10:30 p.m.
Maryland Park Service Superintendent Nita Settina said she doesn't expect the casino to clash with the park's natural charm.
"When you walk out of the door, you will feel that natural scenery, you will still be in that. None of that is going to change," she said.
"What happens inside the lodge, with the casino, is really just a separate experience," Settina said.
That's not how Stefanie Boss sees it. The retired banker from Hagerstown said she and her husband have stayed twice at the 215-room lodge and enjoyed the tranquility of a lakeside stroll or a visit to the hotel spa.
"I think this a very romantic setting. And somehow a casino doesn't seem like it's going to add to the romance," Boss said. "Quite the opposite actually."
But Tom Donlin, executive director of the Maryland Recreation and Parks Association, said the casino probably won't have any bearing on whether his group holds more meetings at Rocky Gap.
"I suppose if we were there, our members might visit the casino after a day outdoors. I don't think it would have a major impact one way or another," Donlin said.
He said many outdoor enthusiasts were disappointed years ago when the state subsidized the resort's construction on public parkland as an economic development venture. The project was a financial failure, with private bondholders agreeing to write off about $26 million to help Lakes buy the resort last year for about $10 million. The lodge and golf course, part of the deal with Lakes, had incurred an operating loss of $4.3 million the previous year.
Donlin said he can't argue with the new strategy.
"Whether it was wise to build this lodge there in the first place or not, it's there and has not been successful," he said. "I don't begrudge the fact that they're going to try to make it successful by putting a casino in place."
The casino is tolerated, if not embraced, by Allegany County Commissioner Bill Valentine, who helped fight off a slots-and-racetrack proposal in the county in 2003. Valentine said he's still not a big slots fan, but he's hopeful that a busier resort will benefit nearby Cumberland and the mostly rural county. Allegany's March unemployment rate was 7.8 percent, higher than both the state's 6.6 percent and the nation's 7.6 percent.
Valentine said he's impressed that Lakes has tried to keep the resort family-friendly.
"You might have one person who wants to play slots and other people who want to go to downtown Cumberland and visit the shops and all that, so that's what we're hoping," he said. "The area always did see a decent amount of business from the lodge, and we just want to make sure we continue to see it."
Cumberland businessman John "JP" Geatz, a fifth-generation owner of Geatz's Restaurant, is guardedly optimistic that slots and table games will lure players willing to spend — and invest — in the county. His restaurant is in a neighborhood once dominated by a Kelly-Springfield tire plant, which closed in 1987. The Pittsburgh Plate Glass and Celanese fiber plants have also closed, leaving the city largely dependent on state prisons, the CSX railroad and tourism for employment.
Geatz said, "We need jobs. We need industry. We need something back into Cumberland."