A Western ski trip that's not too far west Great days in Garrett: The popularity of Wisp Ski Resort is snowballing, thanks in part to this year's blizzard.

January 16, 1996|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,SUN STAFF

McHENRY -- In the mountains of this Garrett County town, 150 miles west and a world removed from Baltimore, they're looking skyward and giving thanks for the best season in the 40-year history of Maryland's only ski resort.

At Wisp Ski Resort, overlooking frozen Deep Creek Lake, the powdery snow cursed elsewhere in Maryland seems like nothing less than manna from the heavens.

Attracted by a base of snow up to 6 feet deep topped by fresh, groomed powder -- the kind from clouds, not snow-making machines -- about 5,000 skiers took to the slopes Sunday, bringing the season total to 91,300, Wisp reported.

The onslaught of visitors began with the heavy Thanksgiving weekend snowfall and has hardly subsided since, save for a slight decline at the height of last week's blizzard as the snow stranded motorists in the Baltimore metropolitan area.

Jerry Geisler, Wisp's operations manager, said the resort is on a pace to exceed its 1993-94 record 178,000 skiers by at least 30,000.

Why go west to Colorado or Utah? Mr. Geisler and quite a few others asked the question Sunday.

"You're not going to find anything in the West, other than bigger mountains, any better than we got here now," Mr. Geisler said. "It's natural snow, it's fresh, it's the best skiing you're ever going to find around here."

The bonanza spread to area businesses here and around other Eastern resorts, as hotels, restaurants and other merchants reaped the benefits of an unusually heavy flow of customers.

Just across the Maryland border, in Pennsylvania, the three major ski resorts also predicted a record season.

On Sunday, Ski Liberty in Carroll Valley and Whitetail Ski Resort in Mercersburg both drew capacity crowds.

By 10:30 a.m., 5,000 skiers had entered Liberty, while 4,000 showed at Whitetail. Ski Roundtop also reported a crowd of roughly 5,000 but continued selling lift tickets and renting skis.

Throughout the region, the rush to the slopes is particularly welcome after last winter, when comparatively mild weather led to low turnouts and left some trails bereft of snow or skiers the entire season.

"Let it snow, let it snow!" exclaimed Sue Nelson, Liberty's marketing coordinator.

"I mean, I'm looking at the blue skies and all this snow from the blizzard and people just smiling as they come down the slopes."

Lone bright spot

Tourism in the Deep Creek Lake area gives people who watch the Garrett County economy one of their few reasons to smile. Tourism has played an increasingly important role as other industries have fallen upon hard times or nearly disappeared. Manufacturing has declined markedly here, as elsewhere, with the move to a service economy. Coal mines have closed as industry relied on cleaner burning. With depletion of the virgin forests, the lumber industry became nearly extinct by 1970 and really never recovered.

Agriculture, too, plays a much smaller role than it once did.

Tourism, though, has enjoyed robust health and consistent growth, much of it centered around Deep Creek Lake.

In winter, it's a skier's dream; in warmer months, boaters, fishermen, golfers, campers and vacationing families settle in cottages, hotels, condos and woods near the lake.

Measuring impact

County officials expect to complete a detailed study of tourism's economic impact within the next few months, said James Hinebaugh, Garrett's economic development director. Today, around the ski resort that had been 400 acres of treeless cow pasture a half century ago, business is booming. Hotels, cottages and private homes line the water's edge, tucked discreetly amid trees. Restaurants and all manner of shops have sprung up along Route 219 in and near McHenry.

Revenue source

And county officials say up to 40 percent of all outside money pumped into the local economy comes from the tourism industry. Property taxes for structures along Deep Creek Lake account for 40 percent to 45 percent of the county's entire take, Mr. Hinebaugh estimates.

Tourism shows no signs of slowing, and county leaders look to visitors to help fill the void left by the loss of other industry. Today, county commissioners are to meet with Department of Natural Resources officials in Annapolis about a possible winter sports complex that would include a huge skating rink, cross-country skiing trails with snow-making machines, a toboggan trail and hiking trails on state-owned parkland.

The project would cost up to $4 million and be developed by a private company, with the state providing the land for free.

"Tourism is obviously an important part of the economy, and Deep Creek Lake has to be considered a large part of that," Mr. Hinebaugh said.

Appealing to tourists

And what of those potential Garrett County tourists -- the snowbound city dwellers and suburbanites who have been muttering unprintable diatribes as wheels spin into deeper ruts, as shoveling becomes a repetitive, Sisyphean labor, as milk, bread, snow plows and tempers run short and lines grow long?

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