The Appalachian Regional Commission has awarded the Town of Williamsport a $275,000 grant to build a visitor center near C&O Canal National Historical Park.
“We’re tickled to death,” Mayor James G. McCleaf II said Thursday.
In a letter in June, McCleaf wrote that the town is committing another $397,263, more than fulfilling the dollar-for-dollar match the town is required to have for the grant.
The town has estimated the total project cost to be $672,263.
As part of its grant application, the town submitted plans for a 2,400-square-foot visitor center to be built near the Cushwa Basin, where a deteriorating town garage used to stand.
The town council is expected to discuss in September whether to accept the grant and move ahead with the project.
From there, the town could seek bids on the project. McCleaf said that might happen in October or November, possibly allowing the center to open by next spring.
McCleaf said the visitor center fits in with the town’s efforts to boost tourism connected to C&O Canal National Historical Park.
Last weekend, more than 300 people rode in a new canal launch boat, he said.
McCleaf said there are several possibilities for the center, such as whether to offer, for example, rented bicycles.
He emphasized that the center would not sell food or drinks and would not compete with local businesses.
Town officials need to decide whether the town should operate the center itself or hire a management company to do it, McCleaf said.
According to a news release about the grant from U.S. Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, the visitor center “is expected to create 60 local jobs and annually bring an additional 310,000 visitors to the area who are expected to spend $3.5 million.”
McCleaf said he wasn’t sure how the estimate of new jobs was calculated but thought it was through a formula.
In an August 2011 letter of support for the grant, Terry L. Baker, the president of the Washington County Board of Commissioners, wrote: “The continued enhancements to the Town of Williamsport will create opportunities for new businesses to locate and create jobs within (the) Town Center business district.”
The news release about the grant quotes Cardin as saying: “This is the kind of grant I like to see (because) it will create jobs and it will make Washington County more attractive to tourists who will be able to enjoy the natural beauty and culture of the region. This grant is an example of what a strong partnership between the federal government and local entities can accomplish in assisting rural communities to develop the infrastructure they need for a strong, vital economy.”
The same news release quotes Mikulski as saying: “This grant is about supporting jobs in Western Maryland. This funding will help grow Williamsport’s tourism economy and is a smart investment that will draw in new visitors, new jobs and bring economic development to the region.”