Wisp exults in early snow

Hot: Early snows and cold temperatures are getting Wisp ski resort off to a good start.

December 19, 2003|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

McHENRY - Christmas has come to Garrett County in the form of wintry weather that has allowed Wisp ski resort to begin its season early and to dream of matching last year's record revenues.

The early cold - and several significant snowfalls - are welcome in the county, which is trying to get more of its warm-weather Deep Creek Lake visitors to view Western Maryland in winter.

"It's like Currier & Ives here," said Karen F. Myers of DC Development LLC, which owns the resort.

The frosty weather allowed Wisp to open on Thanksgiving, earlier than last year, when the resort broke revenue records, aided by more than double its average of 100 inches of snow.

Last weekend's sales eclipsed those of a year ago by about 20 percent, said Paula Yudelevit, the resort's marketing director, although she declined to disclose how many lift tickets have been sold so far.

"That's not something we give out on a regular basis," she said. She said it was too early for the figures to have much meaning.

The price of lift tickets was raised 2 percent to 3 percent this season, with a weekend, peak-season pass going for $46.

Of course, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Last year's mid-February snowstorm sent many Baltimoreans to the store to buy milk and toilet paper. Most were too busy nesting to think about navigating snow-covered roads to a ski resort three hours away.

Even Garrett County, normally adept at clearing snow from the roads, couldn't cope.

A late-night snow tubing party at Wisp ended with many of the employees bunking down at the resort for the night because they couldn't get home.

"In the morning, they helped shovel people out of the parking lot," said Wisp spokeswoman Sarah Duck.

The key, according to resort managers, is for the flakes to begin falling after snow-phobic Baltimore and Washington residents have already arrived. "The worst is the Thursday night snow," Myers said. "We get cancellations."

Of course, too much snow is better than having none at all. Just two seasons ago, Wisp and other resorts had a dismal winter when snowfall was about three-quarters of the average. Wisp didn't open that year until Christmas Eve.

Wisp doesn't need natural snow to survive, just enough cold to produce the artificial variety.

Its snowmaking ability was boosted in 2001 when it got state permission to pump millions of gallons of water a year from Deep Creek Lake.

"That was huge," Myers said. Before that, the resort's limited snowmaking capacity made for tense guessing games about when to turn on the snow machines.

"If the long-range weather didn't look too cold, you couldn't take a chance of it getting warm and losing your snow," she said.

Now, the 48-year-old resort has the capacity to take more chances. With yesterday's chilly weather, the snowmaking guns were in high gear, emitting a dull roar as they blasted snow into the foggy air.

The added snowmaking capacity helped the resort to start up its Bear Claw snow-tubing park in December 2001. This year, it has added new triple chairlifts and a "ski carpet," a moving walkway that replaces a rope tow for beginners.

The resort also is upgrading the hotel faM-gade and accommodations and recently added a spa.

The expansions are part of a plan by Wisp and other interests to turn the county into a Lake Tahoe-style all-season destination.

In the next eight years, a mix of public and private capital is to finance a new recreation complex, whitewater canoe and kayak course, new stores, condos and restaurants, and an adventure sports museum.

The region along Deep Creek Lake has long been a popular spot for summer visitors, and land values and housing prices have soared.

Now, it is trying to drum up more business in the winter season and the relatively quiet "shoulder seasons" in the spring and fall.

"We hope the adventure sports center will even out those shoulder seasons," said Jim Hinebaugh, the county's economic development director and president of the business entity that will manage the adventure sports complex.

"From my perspective we're already getting more tourists coming up here this time of year. We're looking forward to a really big holiday season," he said.

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