Sports complex set for Garrett

Plans include theater, stores, whitewater course

`Lake Tahoe of the East'

`Adventure' center project to break ground in spring

January 05, 2004|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

McHENRY -- Groundbreaking is set for this spring on a multimillion-dollar "adventure sports" complex that officials hope will make Garrett County a prized destination for kayakers, canoeists, mountain bikers, rock climbers and their fans.

The public-private venture eventually is to include retail shops, restaurants and condominiums -- all in a "village" likened by its developers to one at the Snowshoe Mountain Resort in West Virginia.

A nonprofit group created to build the center has secured the needed $9 million from federal, state and county governments for the first, yearlong phase: construction of a 1,000-foot-long whitewater course and 600-seat amphitheater. The group, Adventure Sports Center International, has retained engineers and architects and plans to break ground in May.

The privately financed village, expected to cost several hundred million dollars, would be built over the next four to eight years, according to developers.

If it all comes together, it will be a huge development for the far Western Maryland county, which has 13 traffic lights and no recreation department -- not even a swimming pool -- of its own.

"There has never been a project of this magnitude during my tenure," said County Commissioner Ernest J. Gregg, in his fifth four-year term.

The development is the county's attempt to take what it already has -- a reputation as a solid, if sleepy, venue for boating, skiing and vacation homes -- and build on it, especially among followers of whitewater sports, rock climbing and other outdoor recreational activities.

With help from the state, the region wants to be to whitewater canoeing and kayaking what Cleveland is to rock 'n' roll, albeit on a smaller scale. The complex is to include a Whitewater Hall of Fame honoring the sport's heroes.

It will sit on what is now mostly wooded land near the top of 3,073-foot Marsh Mountain. The site, adjacent to the Wisp resort, offers a commanding view of Deep Creek Lake, with its 65 miles of shoreline.

While the scope of the county's funding share isn't clear, the total is likely to surpass $10 million over several years -- a huge investment considering its annual budget is $56 million. The biggest chunk would be spent on a planned, $22 million indoor recreation and fitness center that would require significant funding from the state.

The county can afford to spend millions on the project because of its budget surplus, resulting largely from real estate taxes and building permits on Deep Creek Lake property. A recent building boom has pushed the cost of the priciest lakefront vacation homes to more than $1 million.

"In our five-year plan, we're looking at spending more money than we ever have," said County Administrator R. Lamont Pagenhardt.

The project's centerpiece is the recirculating whitewater course to be built this year. It will be similar to one used in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. Giant pumps will adjust the water flow from a nearby pond.

The course was part of a proposal by a Baltimore-Washington group that bid to play host to the 2012 Olympics. The bid was denied, but the county still hopes to attract world-class competitors.

The course is intended for use by novices as well as Olympic-caliber athletes. A Savage River course in the county played host to the 1989 Whitewater World Championships, and Garrett has been seeking ever since to further its reputation as a center for whitewater sports.

An amphitheater will sit on a peninsula inside the course, projected to open next year. The theater could be used for performing arts events or to watch competition on the rapids.

Planned nearby are a county recreational and fitness building, a Nordic ski course, indoor climbing tower, outdoor rock climbing venue, an ice rink and 550 acres of trails.

The state donated the land -- valued at nearly $2 million -- to the county.

Local officials liken the project's potential effect to that of the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Resort on the Eastern Shore, which opened last year. That has driven up Cambridge real estate prices and helped revive downtown businesses.

In the long term, Garrett County stewards have an even grander vision: a sports smorgasbord surrounded by a village rivaling that of the 30-year-old Snowshoe Mountain Resort, or even Nevada's Lake Tahoe.

"Since we're coming after Snowshoe, we think we can improve on it," said Karen F. Myers, a partner in DC Development, the developer. "We like to think about it as being the Lake Tahoe of the East, with all the seasons."

Garrett County attracts about 1.2 million visitors a year, split between winter sports and Deep Creek Lake summer activities, said Charlie Ross, president of the county Chamber of Commerce. Adding adventure sports, he said, "would have an exponential effect" on tourism growth.

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