OAKLAND -- This winter, there's less snow on the hills and less ice fishing on Deep Creek Lake. Lately, there's also less certainty about the economic future of Garrett County, and residents cannot blame El Nino and milder weather.
The news that a Pennsylvania utility will sell what is known here as The Lake, Garrett's major tourist attraction and money machine, has unsettled the state's westernmost county.
The many questions about future ownership of the state's largest freshwater lake will not be resolved until Dec. 30, when GPU Inc. of Reading, Pa., picks the winning bidder.
"Without the lake as we've known it, the county is dead," said H. Wayne Wilt, chairman of the Garrett County Commissioners. "We don't know what will happen. There may be a change in fee structure for lake usage. But I personally think the new owner will keep the status quo. It's good business."
Deep Creek Lake and its environs consist of a hydra-headed, crooked body of water with fingers, peninsulas, dead-end roads and forest. The lake is 12 miles long but has 65 miles of shore, which is lined with private cottages and lodges and a state park. GPU owns a 100-foot-wide buffer along most of the water's edge.
Even though at least 75 percent of the shore is developed, the atmosphere remains rural. People come for the recreation -- motorboating, sailing, swimming, fishing, hiking, picnicking and cross-country skiing.
The Youghiogheny Electric Co. created the lake in 1925 when it plugged up Deep Creek and built a hydroelectric plant. The lake covers almost 3,900 acres, and it has an average depth of 26.5 feet but plunges in some places to 72. Area residents view The Lake as a jewel in the wooded hills of Garrett County.
Dora Spiker, a waitress at Denny's in Oakland, said she and her 3-year-old daughter, Sabrina, often use the lake for swimming and relaxing.
"I hope it stays the same," she said. "I can't imagine people would change it. It's a wonderful place for tourists and local people."
Jason Stine, a cook whose parents own property near the lake, said residents are concerned that boat dock fees will rise.
"People are afraid that prices will go up. Some worry that some millionaire will buy it up and really change things. It would be extremely foolish if the state allowed this to happen. The lake should remain open to the public."
Jason Wood, pumping gas in Oakland, fishes for wall-eyed pike and muskies in the lake. He said the sale was OK "as long as they don't sell it to the Japanese and as long as they don't ruin a good thing."
In a statement yesterday, GPU said the company was "very aware of the uniqueness" of Deep Creek Lake and invited county and state officials to be part of the bidding process. The utility promised to keep them informed of developments.
Larry O'Reilly, a GPU spokesman, said yesterday that the Deep Creek plant and the lake have a book value of $4.6 million. The company likely will sell the plant for much more, however, as power plants have been selling for 2.5 times their book value.
It could not be determined whether GPU intends to include Deep Creek Lake in the sale of the plant.
GPU has given county officials a divestiture schedule for the sale of the lake and its power plant, R. Lamont Pagenhardt, the county administrator, said yesterday.
GPU is soliciting certain potential bidders until March 15. Bidders are to submit their qualifications from March 1 to July 15. Early money bids are due by July 15, from which a short list of bidders will be notified by Aug. 1. Final bids are due Nov. 30, with the winning bid selected Dec. 30, and closing of sale, June 30, 1999.
"We've had good relations with GPU and before that the Pennsylvania Electric Co.," said Wilt, the county commission chairman. "If the next owner is as cordial, it won't effect us as much. If it has different ideas, it could hurt."
Wilt and the other county commissioners, Gary E. Fratz and Wayne J. Johnson, said in a joint statement that the lake was essential to the operating budget of the county.
Deep Creek Lake accounts for about 53 percent of Garrett's assessable tax base of $775 million, or about $400 million dollars. Pagenhardt said. That covers about 3,500 private properties, plus GPU's holdings, including the power plant.
Garrett's December unemployment rate of 14.4 percent was among the state's highest, the county having lost its largest private employer, Bausch & Lomb Inc., last year.
Jean Brownlee, sipping coffee at Trader's Coffee House on the lake, said stores selling ice fishing gear suffered this winter.
"We've had only four or five days of ice fishing instead of two months. Everything is El Nino."
She and a friend, Dale Bennett, both property owners, said that Deep Creek Lake Property Owners Association was trying to preserve their interests by working with GPU and the state Department of Natural Resources. DNR manages the recreational use of the lake under a lease from GPU.
"It's all speculation what will happen," said Brownlee.