McHENRY -- Hoping to make Garrett County a winter sports mecca, outdoor enthusiasts here are pushing plans to build a winter sports complex offering improved cross-country skiing, other activities and possibly ice skating.
"People think of Garrett County and deep Creek Lake in the winter and they think of snow and skating," said Gary Yoder, a spokesman for the the state Department of Natural Resources. "But the truth is the lake is too rough to skate on, and you can't depend on natural snow to ski. Cross-country skiing here is very iffy."
Vast tracts of state parks and forests, world-famous rivers and mountainous terrain make Garrett County an ideal location for such a venture, proponents said. They noted, too, the county's proximity to populous Washington, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and eastern Ohio.
Besides offering ice skating and cross-country skiing, the complex would serve as a focal point for a variety of outdoor activities, including backpacking, hiking and orienteering.
A toboggan run also has been discussed as a possibility.
The sites would be in New Germany or Herrington Manor state parks or on a private tract. The operation of such a facility would be a private venture, but state government would allow use of public lands and has been involved in studying the proposals.
Final studies have not been completed, but improving cross-country skiing trails at state parks would likely be the first project pursued, officials agreed. Portable snow-making equipment could be rented or bought fairly inexpensively and would make cross-country skiing a "dependable" winter sport, said Mark Spencer, chief of the western region for DNR's greenways and resource planning division.
The ice-skating rink would be a more costly endeavor, costing $2 million to $4 million, depending on whether indoor or outdoor rinks, or a combination, were built. An ice-skating rink has been part of the long-term development plans for the Wisp Ski Area, but the resort has not reached that level yet.
"This is really a step-by-step process," the DNR's Mr. Spencer said. "With an ice-skating rink, you need to look at the overall market. Can the area support something like that? They're usually in higher population centers to generate revenue. We really need to look at the ski interest first and see what shakes up there."
Helmuth Heise, owner of the Wisp Ski Area, said he is looking at adapting his snow-making equipment to accommodate cross-country skiing on Wisp's 18-hole golf course or atop Marsh Mountain.
"It's really something we need to look at," Mr. Heise said. "If there's any place in Maryland where outdoor winter sports will work, it will work here in Garrett County. Downhill skiing is still the gem, but more and more people want to do other things, too."
Mike Logsdon, director of the Adventuresports Institute at Garrett Community College, said a winter sports complex would diversify the county's outdoor activities and tap into an untapped market. It also would provide on-the-job training for students in the college's adventure-sports degree program.
"We are an outdoors-oriented part of the world, and this really furthers our cause," he said. "We can't control nature, but we can smooth the peaks and valleys of its nuances. We're not going to make snow in July, but we could pump snow in a snowless February. We may have cold temperatures, but we don't always have snow."
Peggy Jamison, a spokeswoman for the county's Economic Development Department, said such recreational opportunities have been talked about for years as an economic tool for the winter months. She said the Wisp Ski Area remains the primary economic engine during the winter.
"[The project] would bring revenue not only for the county but for the state, and it wouldn't bring the development problems with it," she said.
Michael Nelson, DNR's director of land enhancement services, stressed the winter complex is "very preliminary." But he noted that DNR sees some benefits in such a public-private venture.
"We're hearing more and more that people want more recreational opportunities," he said. "This provides us with an opportunity to pursue that and it doesn't tax our budget or staff."