Md.'s `best-kept secret' weathers many storms

Frostburg: The residents of this Western Maryland town have taken frigid winters, fires and loss of industry in stride.

February 16, 2004|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

FROSTBURG -- Talk about bum luck. When postal officials renamed the mail drop of Mount Pleasant in 1820, they decided to honor a fellow who was a patriarch of the budding city.

His surname was Frost and the town became "Frostburg," an unfortunate moniker that coincidentally evokes the one thing many residents of the far Western Maryland city could do without: its frigid winters.

Since then, Frostburg has endured much more than an uninviting name. It has overcome fires and the demise of coal mining, once its linchpin. Today, a city that seems perpetually in survival mode again faces challenges piled up like February snow: slow growth, aging streets and sewer systems, deep cuts in state aid.

As if that weren't enough, another fire Feb. 1 severely damaged a 128-year-old former opera house containing a restaurant, bar, clothing store and apartments that had all been elements in the downtown's revitalization. The fire, on a prominent Main Street block, occurred at the site where an earlier opera house burned to the ground in February 1874.

In responding to the recent blaze, the town -- which donated clothing and room and board to the dozen or so left homeless -- was unshaken, behaving as if it had seen it all before. Which, of course, it had.

"We've had a number of fires. We've suffered the closing down of the coal mines and the loss of a series of industries," said Betty Van Newkirk, a local historian.

Even Frostburg's original reason for being disappeared years ago. Established along a heavily traveled western migration route, the city saw its stagecoach and wagon traffic plummet with the development of the railroad and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal in the mid-19th century.

Says Newkirk: "This is a resilient community that pulls together. It always has been."

If there is a positive side to Frostburg's troubles, it is that the misfortunes at least temporarily attract the attention of the rest of the state, city leaders say. All too often, they say, Frostburg seems otherwise to be off the "downstate" radar, as if it were merely an appendage to the Maryland map.

"It is a common misconception that Western Maryland ends at Frederick," said Ty DeMartino, media director at Frostburg State University, which has 5,000 students and is the city's largest employer with 250 full-time faculty and staff. DeMartino recounted the story of a recent visitor who traveled here "with bottled water in his trunk, blankets, hiking togs and Geological Society maps. And this was in the spring."

The area's perception of being the hinterland is bolstered by the amount of snow it gets -- from 40 inches to nearly 100 inches a year. "We're only 10 miles away from Cumberland, but we're 1,500 feet higher and we get substantially more snow," said Greg Latta, a National Weather Service observer.

But Frostburg, population 8,000, is also a city of old churches, steep hills and turn-of-the-century homes with wide porches.

Pricey homes here sell for $150,000. "This isn't quite the land that time forgot, but sort of -- in a good way," says City Administrator Andrew Fulghum.

The city still has an independently owned clothing store selling "gentlemen's apparel," and holds a soapbox derby race on Main Street every Independence Day.

It has an original soda fountain boasting "Thick Shakes. All Flavors." The fountain, at the Princess Restaurant, is run by a third-generation owner, George Pappas, 53, who has tended to customers since he was 10. The maple booths date to 1948.

"People coming through from Baltimore and Washington don't get to see this type of thing that often," Pappas said.

It's the sort of town, says Community Development Director Steven Sager, where motorists routinely pull over and wave each other past when they encounter one another on a street not wide enough for two cars.

"I describe Frostburg as Green Acres meets Northern Exposure, and I mean that very endearingly," says Sager, referring to two old television shows depicting rural life.

But the same qualities residents appreciate -- the city's patina and slow-growing population -- have strained the city's budget.

Frostburg faces a $24 million project to improve the aging sewer system over the next 20 years. The budget -- about $6 million a year -- is already tight. The city's 50 workers received no raises this year.

Adding to the budget pain are cuts in state funding for such things as street repairs.

"What do we want to accomplish? Survive," said Mayor James Cotton. "These are bad budget years with the state, and it's a trickle-down effect."

The recent fire didn't help the city's outlook. The building, in which older residents recall watching Saturday afternoon matinees, contained a restaurant and clothing shop that frequently attracted university students.

The building sustained substantial interior damage, but appears to be structurally sound. The exterior is charred but standing. "It can be rehabilitated and this is the goal," Sager says. "What's the old Timex commercial? We take a licking and keep on ticking."

Ideally, Cotton says, officials would like to rebuild and add businesses in other parts of Frostburg, too. The city is looking for tenants for a new technology park at the university that could mean nearly 300 jobs. An access road was built for the park several years ago, but no corporate clients have been found. Officials would also like to attract at least several thousand new residents to bring in more tax dollars.

But many in Frostburg say they don't want the city to expand too much. They don't mind being small and relatively undiscovered.

"I like being the best-kept secret," said Barbara Armstrong, a local insurance agent. "We have no beltway."

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