Go west, old man!

More and more retirees are drawn to the Deep Creek Lake area, despite the cold winters in the state's westernmost county


McHenry Madalyn and Chuck Hoffeditz vividly remember the day they retired to Garrett County's Deep Creek Lake: July 1, 1999.

"Chuck retired that day from the National Weather Service, and I also retired the same day from a private Episcopal school," said Madalyn, 61. "We moved up here that afternoon."

Like many of the area's growing number of retirees, the Hoffeditzes were already familiar with the state's second-biggest county in size, an area known for its 3,900-acre lake, spectacular changes of season, year-round outdoor activities and small-town ambience. That's because their 3,800-square-foot lakefront retirement home was once her family's three-bedroom summer cottage in McHenry.

Madalyn Hoffeditz inherited the lakefront property from her parents, and the couple - formerly Potomac residents - decided to renovate it. Hiring an architect and builder to transform their own design plans into reality, the couple lived in one of the home's original bedrooms and baths during construction.

After seven months' work - with annoying delays such as contractors disappearing for hunting season - the couple finally finished their "new" home, adding a two-story great room and balcony, three bedroom suites with baths, a two-car garage and 1,200 square feet of outdoor decks.

"We enjoy everything Deep Creek Lake and the surrounding area has to offer," she says. "We feel very blessed to have a beautiful home and wonderful friends to share both with."

People retiring to Maryland's westernmost county are "on the rise," Kathy Johnson, a Long & Foster agent at Deep Creek Lake said.

"But they're mostly those who have previously spent summers, holidays and vacations here," Johnson added.

A native of the county, she promotes Garrett to potential retirees. "It was a great place to grow up, raise a family and I plan to retire here myself," she added.

People 55 and older already make up about 43 percent of Garrett County's population of 30,000 and a report by Decision Data Resources predicts that age group will increase by 8 percentage points by 2009.

Conversely, Garrett County's school-age population has fallen, and is projected to continue declining.

County planning director John Nelson said half the building permits issued in Garrett last year were for the Deep Creek area, though many of those are for vacation homes.

And while there isn't specific data on retirees, Nelson believes the people who retire to Deep Creek are wealthier than other residents.

Ernie Gregg, the 69-year-old chairman of the Garrett County Commissioners, said the county had taken steps to appeal to retirees. "Attracting retirees is not a bad thing because you have less pressure to provide amenities like schools," he said.

The county has capped increases in real estate tax assessments at 5 percent, below the 10 percent cap mandated by the state. In an area where property values are high and rising sharply that can be an important consideration. The Deep Creek area accounts for 57 percent of Garrett's tax base.

"We want to encourage people to relocate here and take advantage of the tax credit," he said. The cap applies only to permanent residences, not vacation properties.

Beyond financial incentives, Gregg also points to a bevy of new projects on the horizon that should appeal to seniors.

The county will soon open a new health center in Oakland, the county seat, thanks in part to a $600,000 federal grant for staffing.

"It will address the needs of uninsured and under-insured people, but it will need a mix of all incomes to be successful," he explained. He said the county is "making great strides on the medical front" with a new expansion nearing completion at the Garrett County Memorial Hospital in Oakland. Five new physicians are waiting to replace three who are retiring.

A performing arts facility is to be built adjacent to an exhibit hall on a site close to Deep Creek Lake near an area of existing restaurants, a cinema and retail shops. Its opening is three to four years off.

A $23 million athletic-recreation facility, with indoor pool, exercise and physical therapy equipment, is planned atop the Wisp Ski Resort's mountain. It will be run by Garrett College, Gregg said.

Bill Weissgerber, associate broker and co-owner of Railey Realty in McHenry, said that while more retirees are moving to the area, it can't - at this point - be regarded a retirement mecca.

"I do think it's a goal of a lot of people who first buy property here - and that may certainly be where it heads - but the numbers aren't measurable yet," he said.

Some retirees, he said, don't all stick it out during the severe winter months.

Weissgerber's next-door neighbors in the lakefront Blakeslee community, Pat and Sue Bredel, are perfect examples.

"We're here full time except for six weeks in the winter when we rent a place on Florida's St. George Island," said Pat Bredel. "But if I could get into downhill skiing, I'd be here year-round."

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