Wisp Ski Area seeks grant to prevent downhill slide Financial problems beset primary winter employer

THE BALTIMORE SUN

McHENRY -- When the slopes of the Wisp Ski Area along Deep Creek Lake are in danger of becoming bare during winter, a machine is fired up to make snow.

What Wisp's owners need now is a money machine to help them through tough financial times.

The owners and Garrett County officials may turn to someone who does have such a machine -- the federal government.

Hit hard by several mild winters and a sluggish real estate market, the owners of Wisp have defaulted on a $7 million loan from the Bank of Baltimore. They are seeking other private money to meet the debt but also have asked the county to seek a federal Community Development Block Grant to keep the ski area from going under. County officials are considering the request and are waiting for more financial information from Wisp's owners.

Some residents see such a grant as a way to keep an important employer in the community, while others believe that if Wisp's PTC owners fail, someone else will step in to run the ski resort.

Wisp's plight comes at a time when Western Maryland is feeling good about itself, with the recent dedication of Interstate 68 and the opening of the Sideling Hill Exhibit Center. The idea of the state's lone ski resort on shaky financial ground does not bode well for tourism in the region or the state.

"It would be an extremely significant loss to the entire state" if Wisp were to go under, said Dean Kenderdine, assistant secretary for tourism promotion in the state Department of Employment and Economic Development. "Wisp is a key component to the sales effort that we make when we say Maryland offers every recreational activity one could want. Skiing is clearly one of those activities."

In Garrett County, where the economy includes small industry, coal mining, farming and forestry, much of the bread on local tables comes from tourism. Thoughts of a Wisp-less lakeshore are unnerving for county residents who make their living serving tourists.

David C. Insley, a real estate broker with A&A; Realty, said that winter on the lake without Wisp would be "devastating."

"If you wanted to see what it would be like, come here in the spring," he said. "It's dead up here then, and that's what winters would be like without Wisp."

Tina Rodeheaver, a clerk at the Plaza Deli in McHenry, said that the resort is "what brings everyone up here."

The area would become "a ghost town," said her co-worker, Joy Thrasher. "If Wisp wasn't here, I don't think we would have our jobs."

Robert Schroyer, a maintenance man at the 37-year-old ski resort, agreed. "If it wasn't for Wisp, there wouldn't be any winter jobs around here," he said.

That is the argument some Garrett County officials would make to those who might question the county's seeking a federal grant to provide a low-interest loan to the resort.

"It's important to keep the Wisp Ski Area open," Commissioner John Braskey said. "They employ a lot of people in the county. I think we can help them get back on their feet."

Wisp -- a ski area with 23 slopes and trails, a hotel and restaurants -- employs more than 200 people in full- and part-time jobs during winter and about 150 the rest of the year, said Jerry Geisler, ski area operations manager.

The ski area, golf course, ski lodge and shops are owned and operated by Recreational Industries Inc., whose primary owner is Helmith M. Heise. The hotel includes privately owned condominium units and units available for rental. Condominium owners contract with a private management firm to operate the hotel. Mr. Heise would not comment on Wisp's woes.

Part of Wisp's financial problems stem from not being able to sell enough condominium units. About 40 of the 160 units have not been sold, and Recreational Industries' owners are behind on hotel mortgage payments.

A few mild winters also set the resort back, Mr. Geisler said. "Last winter was good, and we were able to make plenty of snow and great weather, but it is expensive to have to make snow and we still need a couple of good winters to make up for the bad ones," he said.

Mr. Geisler said that the ski area is moving ahead with plans for the upcoming winter "just as we have every other year."

Owners hope the federal grant and more private money will allow them to continue operations and avoid layoffs. If approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the grant would go to the county, which would make a low-interest loan to Wisp's owners. The loan could be up to $1 million, county officials said.

Such a transaction would be appropriate under HUD guidelines for block grants for small communities, said Thomas Jones, Garrett County's economic development director. The county can lend money from the grant to a for-profit operation in return for an agreement to create more jobs for low- and moderate-income area residents, he said. Wisp officials have said that the grant will help them retain their work force and expand.

"Wisp is a very integral part of our local economy," Mr. Jones said. "It adds a four-season dimension to our tourism and creates a number of jobs in the winter that would not be there otherwise."

While much of the talk has been about saving Wisp and fear of what would happen if it were to close, officials acknowledge that someone else probably would take over the operation -- perhaps buying the facility -- or else the bank would continue its operation.

Some citizens raised that issue in opposing government assistance, and County Commissioner Brenda J. Butscher has similar concerns. "I have mixed feelings about the application myself," she said. "If it were sold to an outsider, I feel the business could go on."

Before she could make any decision on assistance for Wisp, Mrs. Butscher said, she would want more financial information to avoid sending "good money after bad."

Brison Thomas, a dairy farmer who lives near the lake, came to a July public hearing to speak against the proposal. "At that meeting, they [Wisp owners] didn't really have any information," he said. "We weren't sure how much they would borrow, or how much interest would be charged. It was kind of upsetting to me, and I don't think this is something that the government should be getting involved in."

For now, the loan application is on hold, as county officials wait for more financial information from Mr. Heise.

"This guy started back in 1954 with a tow rope from an Army-Navy surplus store," Mr. Jones said. "He has never asked for any help. He's a rugged individual, and when a guy like this asks for help, we know he needs it."

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