ANNAPOLIS – Until last June, you’d be hard pressed to find quiche almost anywhere in Garrett County, much less a turkey monte-cristo.
Both items are on now on the menu at Parisian-trained Chef Dana Bach’s Cafe LaDonna in Oakland, one of a number of businesses benefiting from the county’s unique good fortune.
While municipalities across Maryland face budget cuts, Garrett County is in the midst of a boom, bolstered by trends toward local tourism, and a soaring real estate market.
Now the county projects a budget surplus and local residents have money to spend on entertainment of their own — including Bach’s “semi-gourmet” cuisine.
“We seem to have been blessed to be in the right place at the right time,” said Bach.
The county is a bright spot in a cash-strapped state that faces a nearly $800 million gap in the next budget year.
Other counties are feeling the pinch of a stuttering economy. Howard County made difficult cuts in a number of programs, while Baltimore County borrowed $18 million from its rainy day fund last year to balance its budget.
By contrast, Garrett projects a $1.5 million surplus, said County Adminstrator Monty Paganhardt.
That’s money the county can use to refurbish schools, build a new detention center and hire personnel.
“With the economy doing well and growth going on in a lot of areas, it allows us to continue to fund projects,” Paganhardt said.
But Garrett’s economic prospects haven’t always been so rosy.
The rural county, which boasts just 29,000 people and nine traffic lights, has traditionally relied on agriculture and service jobs in the tourism industry, said Deb Clatterbuck, director of tourism and industry.
In 1997, while the rest of the state enjoyed unprecedented prosperity, Garrett had 13.6 percent unemployment. Now, as statewide unemployment numbers climb, Garrett’s have fallen to just 7 percent in 2002, a 30-year low.
While many of those jobs are in constructing vacation homes at Deep Creek Lake, entrepreneurs like Bach are becoming increasingly common.
Since 1999, membership in the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce has nearly doubled, reaching an all-time high of 532.
That economic vitality has spread to Oakland, the county seat of just 1,400 residents, a 12-minute drive from Deep Creek Lake.
“We have more people requesting retail lots in downtown Oakland than we have space to put them,” Mayor Asa McCain said.
Cafe LaDonna’s success exemplifies Oakland’s potential.
What started as a family-based decision — Bach’s wife, for whom the restaurant is named, is a 12th-generation Garrett County resident — has turned into a shrewd business move.
At lunchtime, the cafe is packed and often has a 30- to 40-minute wait for its 38 tables. Most of those customers aren’t vacationing Washingtonians, but local residents who can afford to spend extra dollars dining out.
“It seems like there was a need there. Before our restaurant opened, if we wanted a certain kind of meal, we had to cook at home,” Bach said.
While Bach’s clientele may be primarily local, many of those new businesses cater to a growing population of new part-time residents taking advantage of a burgeoning real estate market nationwide to buy vacation homes in the area.
“Since the stock market fell, we’ve had a real increase in demand out here. It’s an investment that people and their children can live in and enjoy for years,” said Karen Myers, a partner with DC Development.
In 1999, lots at Wisp mountain resort sold for $40,000 to $70,000. Now they are going for $250,000 to $300,000, Myers said.
The number of vacation homes built annually has nearly doubled between 1999, when 113 homes were built, and 2002, when 202 homes went up.
More construction is underway on Marsh Mountain near Wisp ski resort, where Adventure Sports Center International will begin the $9 million first phase of a new complex containing an artificial whitewater course and a 1,200- seat amphitheater, amenities investors hope will capitalize on increased tourism to the area.
Newcomers and tourists are attracted to the mountain scenery and family-oriented resort of Deep Creek, offering skiing in the winter and lakeside beaches in the summer.
“There’s this feeling that you get when you come to Garrett County, you drive over that first mountain and you just start to relax,” McCain said.
That tranquility seems even more appealing lately to residents of the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area who have been reticent to travel far since Sept. 11, 2001.
“A lot of people would rather drive than fly right now, and we’re only three hours from D.C. and Baltimore, but we’re 3,000 feet higher,” Clatterbuck said, “It looks like a whole different country here and you don’t have to travel far.”
This past winter’s record snowfalls filled Garrett County’s resorts with skiers taking advantage of slopes covered with more than 50 inches of snow.
Revenues from the accommodation tax were up 24 percent this year, the best available indicator of a prosperous vacation season.
“My daughter moved to St. Mary’s County and just came back to visit. I took her driving around the lake and she noticed all the building that’s been going on and said, ‘But, Mom, there’s a recession,'” Clatterbuck said, “I told her, ‘No, not in Garrett County, there isn’t.'”