PERRYVILLE — Several weeks after the county and town announced they were negotiating to bring a Great Wolf Lodge resort to the Chespeake Overlook, the excitement over the prospect remains high.
State Senate President Thomas “Mike” Miller recently touted the project in recognizing Cecil County Executive Alan McCarthy from the chamber’s rostrum.
“My kids have to go to Virginia to go to Great Wolf Lodge. Now because of (McCarthy’s) leadership, Great Wolf Lodge is coming to Cecil County,” Miller said, encouraging his colleagues’ applause.
While the enthusiasm hasn’t abated, the details about the project, how it was landed, what incentives are being offered to lure it here and how officials hope to parlay its arrival into even more development are just coming into view.
A cold call
Cecil County Economic Development Director Chris Moyer is no stranger to development success. Under his watch, the county has landed projects including Amazon, Medline, Fortress Steel, and obtained advantageous designations and funding from competitive federal grant programs.
Despite those successes, he gives all credit for the Great Wolf Lodge proposal to the small staff at Perryville town hall, for essentially cold calling the billion-dollar recreation company and asking if their town might be a good fit.
Moyer said his office didn’t initiate contact with Great Wolf reps, because he believed a detailed pitch would be needed to reel such a large project in.
“What did Wayne Gretzky say, ‘You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.’ I give Perryville all the credit for reaching out and just asking if they had interest in this site,” he said. “Their response was pretty much, ‘Yes. Yes, we do.’”
While Great Wolf Lodge’s parent company, Great Wolf Resorts, has already built 18 locations from coast to coast and border to border, Moyer noted that the Perryville location would be the company’s first on Interstate 95 — a major arterial highway that runs from Maine to Florida.
“I think that’s the biggest draw for them, being right in front of a New York family heading to Disney World or a Pennsylvania family heading to a lacrosse tournament in Virginia,” Moyer said.
While the presence of the Susquehanna River tolls may affect decisions by some businesses to locate in Cecil County, the draw of a resort from around the region muted that concern, Moyer said.
“You can’t travel the interstate without ever paying tolls, so the Susquehanna tolls won’t be much of a deterrent,” he explained.
While some residents have raised concerns about additional traffic on Route 222 due to the resort, Moyer stated that the I-95 interchange directly across from the entrance to Chesapeake Overlook should limit any new traffic on the state road.
‘Worst kept secret’
As county and town officials met with Great Wolf reps over much of 2018, it quickly became apparent that the project had legs in the county, Moyer said.
“I think the technical term was that ‘It’s on,’” he said with a laugh.
Among the ways that the county aimed to help land the resort was the designation of the Chesapeake Overlook site as an enterprise zone, part of a federal program aimed at improving economically distressed areas by providing tax incentives. The state signed off on that proposal just a day before the project was publicly announced.
Businesses in an enterprise zone can claim a 10-year credit against local property taxes on a portion of property improvements. That credit is 80 percent of the tax assessment during the first five years, and later decreases 10 percent annually until it hits the floor of 30 percent in the 10th year.
Businesses in enterprise zones can also claim one-year or three-year credits for wages paid to new employees in new positions, something that Great Wolf Lodge would be sure to enjoy in its time. The general credit is a one-time $1,000 credit per new worker, although it increases to $6,000 per worker distributed over three years if they are deemed economically disadvantaged.
The approval of the enterprise zone apparently weighed heavily on the minds of the resort developer.
“We’ve had some preliminary discussions with leaders in Perryville and Cecil County regarding the potential for a future Great Wolf Lodge. There is no question the designation of Perryville as one of the approved enterprise zones will be a significant consideration as we further evaluate this opportunity,” a Great Wolf Resorts spokesman told the Cecil Whig last month.
To further entice the resort to locate to the county, county officials are offering a two-pronged tax incentive package: a 50 percent credit on personal property taxes, capped at $4.5 million, and waiving a 5 percent administration fee associated with hotel revenue. Personal property tax is applied to business-owned items and generally includes furniture, fixtures, office and industrial equipment, machinery tools, supplies, etc. Both tax breaks will last for 25 years, or until the cap is reached.
The tax incentive package offered to Great Wolf Lodge is unlike one ever seen in Cecil County’s recent history, according to county officials. Notably, the resort will not follow the same route as the large-scale Amazon and Lidl projects did in obtaining forgivable state and county loans, which were tied to job creation figures.
Both of those projects also carried codenames through until their incentive packages were approved, and Great Wolf had been prepared to be called “Project Centennial.” However, because the tax incentive packages specifically noted a hotel, Moyer said it was all too obvious that this project was not a warehouse.
“We felt that it was becoming Cecil County’s worst kept secret. I had been congratulated by officials in Harford County about it before it was announced, and we just wanted to own up to what we had been working on for in the name of transparency,” Moyer said, noting local officials spoke with Great Wolf reps about their decision to preemptively identify the company before the project was confirmed. “They understood that it was going to become news, so we ripped the Band-Aid off.”
On Tuesday, the town of Perryville also put forward an incentive package to ensure that the project materialized.
The ordinance creates a Hotel Economic Development Incentive Program, which does tie tax abatement, utility fees and infrastructure development to a minimum $30 million property investment and the creation of a minimum of 200 jobs within one year of opening. The hotel must also operate a minimum of 200 rooms and make good faith efforts to hire town residents, primarily by holding periodic job fairs in town.
Slated to open by summer 2022, the $200 million water park resort will reportedly feature 450 to 500 guest rooms, restaurants, shops, a rope course, a climbing wall and a conference center accommodating up to 1,000 people, according to the local announcement. Officials also expect the resort to hire upward of 600 people, including both full- and part-time employees.
If those statistics are met, the Great Wolf Lodge would easily meet the requirements put forward by the town.
Incentives for projects approved — while clearly tailored for Great Wolf Lodge, the program could apply to any hotel-based project large enough — first by an evaluation team and then town officials, include coverage of up to 100 percent of hotel taxes for up to 25 years, discounts up to 50 percent on personal property taxes for 25 years, and help with the cost of public and real property improvements, property acquisition and site development. The ordinance includes the caveat that grant funding changes as the town’s finances allow.
“This creates a framework. It gives the mayor and commissioners authority to enter into an agreement,” Breder, the town administrator, told the Whig.
What the future holds
With the resort proposed to be built on 44 acres adjacent to Hollywood Casino Perryville, currently owned by Stewart Companies, a remaining 55 acres of the Chesapeake Overlook property would be open for development.
Although Great Wolf Lodge will boast hundreds of hotel rooms for the use of resort guests, Moyer told the Whig he didn’t think another hotel at the Chesapeake Overlook was out of the question, especially as the county’s burgeoning sports tourism industry grows. With the installation of numerous turf fields around the county, both at Calvert Regional Park and county high schools, the county is increasingly booking large youth sports tournaments, bringing hundreds, and even thousands, of families from around the region to the county.
Moyer has also publicly pitched other possible fits at the site such as Top Golf, a golf driving range-sports entertainment company with nearly 50 locations in the U.S., but none between Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.
While that is a personal hope, Moyer said the county hasn’t begun pitching to other possible companies yet. He said he’s preparing for the International Council of Shopping Centers’ spring convention, which is the world’s largest retail real estate convention.
“That is where those kinds of deals come together,” he said. “But we do think (a Great Wolf Lodge) will generate momentum for other projects in the western county.”
Meanwhile, the manager of the neighboring Hollywood Casino said his company is keeping a close watch on the project’s progress and preparing plans to try to attract some of the increasing traffic to the area.
“The main thing is that we have to be prepared to have families here, which is the type of customer that we’re not necessarily used to seeing,” Matthew Heiskell, the casino’s general manager, told the Whig. “Primarily that’s working with our partner in the Green Turtle, because right now you can’t get in the restaurant under 21 because you have to walk through the casino. Green Turtle is known for catering to families, so we’ll be creative in finding a way to open up access to the restaurant when the time comes.”
Heiskell said there would be other considerations like traffic patterns, making sure parking lots between the resort and the casino are clearly demarcated so traffic can flow freely.
“We’d also have to ensure that security is beefed up, because we obviously don’t want anyone underage ... gaming in our casino,” he said.
As a smaller company now no longer under the Penn National umbrella, Heiskell said his company doesn’t really have an example of a casino next to a family-friendly attraction like a water park resort. But he added that it’s not unheard of in the industry, with the Live! Casino & Hotel located right next to the Arundel Mills Mall in Hanover.
“Obviously we hope that foot traffic will increase with a neighbor like Great Wolf Lodge. It’s definitely not a bad thing to have next door,” he said.
‘Moon and stars lined up’
For many in Perryville, the excitement over the future of Chesapeake Overlook is almost hard to believe after the site remained largely unchanged for nearly a decade.
Perhaps chief among those excited to see that movement is longtime former Perryville Mayor Jim Eberhardt, who had a hand in the vision that established Chesapeake Overlook’s commercial entertainment mixed-use development, or CEMUD, designation in April 2009. The town worked with the owner of the 146-acre site, Stewart Companies, to extend town infrastructure to it.
A little more than a year later, the town celebrated the opening of the casino, Maryland’s first under legislation that legalized gambling in the state once again. But there were more plans — for a hotel, restaurants or even a movie theater.
Eight years later, the casino remained the only development in the huge parcel right off I-95, until perhaps now.
“I’m finally glad to see all that the town had put into this working,” Eberhardt said. “The moon and the stars lined up I guess. That’s what that property has always been proposed to be for.”
Looking back, Eberhardt said he believes the economy played its part in the delay of developing Chesapeake Overlook, but he also blames the state, and specifically former Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration for putting the brakes on their vision in 2012.
That year, the Maryland State Highway Administration ruled that Perryville would have no more development at the Route 222/Interstate 95 corridor until the state highway could be widened to accommodate increased traffic. The state expected Perryville to chip in on that expansion.
Eberhardt spent a considerable amount of time during the rest of his terms fighting that decision, pointing to the expansion of the Route 22 corridor in Aberdeen that was paid entirely by state and federal funds, not municipal.
A change in the Governor’s Mansion in 2014 meant a change in Cecil County, and Eberhardt credits Gov. Larry Hogan for the reversal of fortune. A 2016 study found that no upgrades to Route 222 was needed for development at Chesapeake Overlook. Officials said the previous ruling was based on potential increases in traffic for a handful of large projects that never came to fruition, including Bainbridge, Happy Valley, Woodlands at Perryville and Granite Cliffs.
“Suddenly Hogan gets into office and says Maryland is open for business and that went away,” Eberhardt said, noting that SHA ruled that Route 222 could actually support an increase in traffic.