May 4, 2014

Rascovar column: Lots of responses on Garrett County’s Isolation

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In his April 21 Maryland Reporter column, Barry Rascovar describes the O’Malley Administration’s policy toward Garrett County as one of “benign neglect.” The facts say otherwise.

In his April 21 Maryland Reporter column, Barry Rascovar describes the O’Malley Administration’s policy toward Garrett County as one of “benign neglect.” The facts say otherwise.

By Barry Rascovar

For MarylandReporter.com

Who woulda thunk it? The April 20 column on Garrett County’s isolation in mountainous, far Western Maryland produced a tsunami of responses — both pro and con — including one from an offended gubernatorial wannabe’s staffer and another from an offended O’Malley administration.

Garrett County in far west of Maryland.

Garrett County in far west of Maryland.

And here I thought I was saying something nice for a change!

A few local residents thought I was too kind in my admiration; others appreciated that someone from the big city three hours away noticed there’s more out to Garrett than state forests, ski lifts and a man-made lake.

The governor’s folks didn’t like being accused of “benign neglect” when it comes to promoting and aiding the state’s most decidedly Republican county. The administration’s opus, though, inadvertently proved my point.

The letter noted that O’Malley has poured $70 million into Garrett’s roads since 2007. There’s another $10 million coming this year, too — nearly all of it to improve state highways in the county.

The rest of the story

Here are some facts left out of the O’Malley administration’s letter: Garrett received 20% less in local transportation aid, 15% less in recreation and natural resources aid, 4% less in library aid and 2% less in education aid from Annapolis this year — even as the overall state budget grew by 4.3%.

So much for the O’Malley-Brown administration’s claim of putting Garrett County on its priority list.

Indeed, there’s scant evidence either O’Malley or Brown have thought much about helping Garrett boost its economic potential as a recreation wonderland.

Ever hear about the governor or lieutenant governor making news by vacationing at Deep Creek Lake or at the Wisp ski resort?

Wisp Ski Resort

Wisp Ski Resort

Ever catch O’Malley or Brown cutting commercials that promote Garrett as a retreat for families who like outdoor activities?

To them, it’s a forgotten, Republican part of Maryland not worth their time.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for businessman Larry Hogan Jr. wrote to protest the column’s assertion that no candidate for governor cares about Garrett County.

“Western MD is absolutely a priority for Hogan,” says Adam Dubitsky of the Republican candidate’s campaign staff, “which is why he visited shortly after announcing and will be back again. . . .  Larry has repeatedly criticized Annapolis elites for ignoring Marylanders who live west of Frederick City and especially those who reside west of Sideling Hill.”

Fracking can be fractious

Other readers took issue with the column’s concern that overly strict state regulations could doom hopes for an economic boost tied to drilling for natural gas in Garrett County using hydraulic fracturing techniques, better known as “fracking.”

Deep Creek Lake, Garrett County, Md. by Corey Seeman

Deep Creek Lake, Garrett County, Md. by Corey Seeman

One resident wrote, “I live in Garrett county and do not want fracking here. Don’t be too quick to judge.”

Here’s another: “Thank you so much for your article about Garrett County. . .  in most areas you ‘hit the nail on the head’.  However, many in the county do not want fracking, many are concerned about the impact on our tourist industries including the lake and the many local state parks. . . .  noise and water pollution are the major concerns.  Fracking is a big, noisy business with big trucks and constant disruption.  I know that simplifies a problem. . .  but it is a concern, as well as a drop in the property values.  After living near a natural gas storage pumping site for 25 years. . .  the traffic and noise are an impact on daily living and enjoyment of property, or small acreage.  Just sayin’. . . Thank you for ‘listening!’ ”

A resident of Lonaconing wrote: “Very interesting article, although a couple minor errors, plus, I wanted to give you a little additional insight. . .

“First, Garrett Co is not the only county that will benefit from fracking. . . . Allegany County will also. . . western Allegany County (the George’s Creek valley) also sits over the Marcellus Shale reserve.

“Secondly, as far as gubernatorial candidates. . . when [Doug] Gansler did his Western Maryland tour, he only went as far as Cumberland (Allegany Co.). . . He never touched Garrett. . . Hogan is the only candidate I know of that’s gone to Garrett for a political visit. . .

“Other than that, nice article. . . nice to get a little focus up this way.”

Community college guarantee

Here’s another response concerning Garrett County’s guarantee of a community college education for its high school graduates:

“As a Western Marylander, I appreciated this column. I thought you would be interested to know that, inspired in part by the Garrett County Commissioners’ decision to pay for community college for Garrett students, the Allegany County Commissioners have dedicated most of the revenue they receive from the new Rocky Gap Casino to paying for local students to attend Allegany College of Maryland and Frostburg State University. In discussions I heard, they talked about both the economic development benefit of having a better-educated populace, as well as the ability to keep our young people from having to leave the county for opportunity.”

From the president of Garrett College, Rick MacLennan, came this comment:

“Thank you for your recognition of the County/College partnership.  Existence of the county scholarship program was a significant variable in my decision to accept the presidency (and yank my family across the country from the state of Washington) in 2010.

“It was very nice meeting you—come back and see us again.”

Others didn’t see it quite that way. Here’s a correspondence from Grantsville:

“I liked reading it, but I think you drank the Cool-Aid a bit too heavily! I have only lived out here for 6 years, so I hardly qualify as a resident let alone a local. I am a retired software engineer and teach at Garrett College (one course in computer science).  Some observations that I have gleaned:

  1. The average Garrett Scholarship student is ill-prepared for much of anything out of high school.  90% going to Garrett College have to take remedial math and English! . . . It may be that those going to other institutions are better-prepared, but I suspect it is self-selection rather than ability.
  2. Of my students, I have lost about 20% after the first week, 60% by the mid-terms, and 20% will pass. . . I am extremely lenient with no dings for late homework, open book and unlimited time for tests, etc. and still see only a couple of students get through the semester with good grades!
  3. The primary school system does not seem to adequately provide for vocational training. . . I suspect a lot of students should be pushed toward building trades, communications, wind turbine maintenance, etc.
  4. A lot of Garrett’s problems are self-inflicted.  There is a lot of NIMBYism that is often misplaced.  For instance, the objections to zoning prevent any useful regulation of land use including fracking, wind turbines, suburban sprawl, etc. . . .

“On the positive side:

  1. The roads are incredibly well-maintained, especially in the winter.
  2. The temperatures are about 10F lower than certainly Baltimore and even Cumberland (more like 8F there).
  3. Services are adequate and Pittsburgh, Johnstown, Morgantown, or Altoona (or even Frederick, D.C., or Baltimore) are a reasonable distance.
  4. Arts are OK — I . . . travel back to Frederick weekly to play in the Frederick Symphony because there is nothing close even at Frostburg University. We do have some arts at Frostburg, Cumberland, GLAF [Garrett Lake Arts Festival], and Music at Penn Alps. . . .
  5. The fall is fantastic!  Winter is a real winter (if you like that — if not, don’t come out here!)”

Missing Key Points

Here’s a different perspective from a Garrett resident:

“The article totally misses several key facts . . .

“Garrett County (GC) residents are partially responsible for their political isolation. They lean so far right that ordinary (above and below middle class citizens) hardly ever speak out regarding their concerns about important issues. . . . .

“The lack of public outcry has caused a severe excommunication of area residents. Since they don’t raise their voice, it leaves only wealthy business owners to push political ideas. This has turned Garrett County into a mecca for minimum wage. Our leaders complain that families don’t stay in the area, yet college educated people are left working at Lowe’s or Wisp, for a scant $ 7.25 per hour, because our local government has done nothing to address wage inequality. . . .

“While the state has certainly been unfair to the county, county government has done nothing but benefit a few select business owners, while largely ignoring the struggling working population.”

That’s a portion of the responses to my rather mild column.

Folks speak their mind in Garrett County, though they do so with extreme politeness. I found it a neighborly place that isn’t given sufficient attention by the powers in Annapolis. The citizens of that remote mountain county deserve better.

Barry Rascovar writes a blog at politicalmaryland.com. He can be reached directly at brascovar@hotmail.com.