Garrett fortunes buoyed by lake

Deep Creek: The resort area gets much of the credit for the county's newfound prosperity.

December 21, 2003|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

OAKLAND -- They've got a $9.4 million secret out here in Garrett County.

It's called a budget surplus, and they did it without a tax increase or slot machines. If you suspect that's a fluke in this era of fiscal agony, then maybe you're remembering the county from its days as an outpost of Appalachia, when it was a hilly poverty zone of outhouses and dirt floors.

Nowadays the plumbing is indoors, and the dirt is top-dollar.

"We have dirt selling for a million bucks," county Commissioner Frederick Holliday says cheerfully.

He means real estate, or, to be exact, home sites along Deep Creek Lake, the picturesque prize at the heart of Garrett's secret. By luring vacationers and retirees to build luxurious waterfront houses, the lake supplies more than half the county's tax base, with few of the usual costly accompaniments, such as schoolchildren.

Garrett's new prosperity is evident in a variety of indicators. The unemployment rate is at an all-time low of just under 6.5 percent. The percentage of families living below the poverty level is on the verge of dropping beneath double digits for the first time. The school system got all of its most recent budget request.

And lest anyone think $9.4 million sounds piddly, the surplus equals about a sixth of the county's annual spending.

"This would be the first county I've heard of that's having anything like this happen this year," says Michael J. Sanderson, legislative director of the Maryland Association of Counties. "A lot of folks in other counties will be heading out to Garrett County to see what their recipe is."

What they'll mostly find is a bunch of people saying nice things about each other. From poverty workers to business boosters, political tranquillity seems to have settled onto Garrett's hills and valleys like a fresh snowfall, muffling the discord one often finds in town halls and county offices.

Extra money has a way of doing that.

"It used to be that after you got past paying for the schools and the police and shoving the snow off the roads that we didn't have any money left," says Duane Yoder, president of the anti-poverty organization Garrett County Community Action. "But we've made a quantum leap into something I think will remain permanent."

"The important thing," says Bob Rudy, owner of an Oakland clothing store and a partner in DC Development, "is that the county is positioning itself to make this a long run."

Problems remain, of course.

Low wages continue to keep family incomes well below the statewide average. Drive around the county's back roads -- reasonably smooth and free of potholes, incidentally -- and you'll see the evidence: sagging trailer homes here and there, with plastic in the windows; the occasional old coal mining village still down on its luck, such as Crellin, on the chilly banks of the Youghiogheny River.

But even on this issue there's political harmony.

"Our challenge now is how do we upgrade our skill base," says county economic director Jim Hinebaugh, sounding an awful lot like Yoder, who says, "We have to make sure our people have the skills to take advantage of these opportunities."

In another rarity, elected officials and local bureaucrats get much of the credit for the unity and the fiscal management.

Running the show in Garrett is a three-member Board of Commissioners, headed by Chairman Ernest J. Gregg, along with County Administrator R. Lamont "Monty" Pagenhardt. Add Hinebaugh, the other department heads and about 300 other employees (not counting the schools), and you've got the entire payroll.

"It is small, it is manageable, and it's not too hard to figure out who you need to talk to when you need an issue addressed," says Don Morin, president of the thriving Garrett Container Systems.

A recent meeting of the commissioners demonstrated exactly how small and manageable. Library director Cathy Ashby asked for a $300,000 loan, explaining that a federal grant had become entangled in red tape just as a bill of $129,000 came due for construction of a new branch in Grantsville.

"Is it Dirk or Tim you're dealing with on that bill?" Commissioner Holliday asked.

"Mostly Tim," Ashby said. "I have the bill with me."

Chairman Gregg mulled it a few seconds.

"OK," he said. "We can do that."

Loan granted. Total time of meeting: 10 minutes.

To figure out how things got to be so good, it helps to go back to when they were pretty rotten.

Charlie Ross, who grew up in Friendsville and now runs the county's chamber of commerce, remembers introducing himself at a Johns Hopkins fraternity banquet in 1966 by humbly announcing, "I'm Charlie Ross, and I'm from Appalachia."

He was right. More than a quarter of Garrett's population lived below the poverty level that year. A similar number had no running water. Literacy was often an afterthought.

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