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Whitewater woes in Friendsville

Residents say ‘river rats’ use parking, amenities, but tax funds do not go to town
Megan Miller
Cumberland Times-News Mon Sep 13, 2010, 08:08 AM EDT

— FRIENDSVILLE — The raging rapids of the Upper Youghiogheny River draw throngs of whitewater enthusiasts to Friendsville each year, in a season lasting from April to October.

In recent years the number of annual visitors converging on the town has skyrocketed. In 2000, the companies that guide and outfit Upper Yough river-goers reported 959 rafts of customers to the state. In 2009, the total reported raft count was 1,363.

An even more dramatic increase appears to be under way since 2009. That year, the outfitters reported 3,743 individual clients. Just one year earlier, the outfitters tallied barely more than 3,000 clients.

Those figures don’t include the number of private kayakers and boaters who run the river with their own equipment. Friendsville Mayor Spencer Schlosnagle estimated that count to be at least half the number going through the outfitters.

On its face, the increase in tourist traffic might seem like a boon for the small mountain town. But that depends on whom you ask.

Vernon Sines has been the owner and operator of the S&S Market on Maple Street for 30 years. He’s seen the impact of river visitors in many ways, but a boost for his business isn’t one of them.

“No, no, we sure don’t see that,” Sines said. “That’s for sure.”

Most of the whitewater outfitters, Sines pointed out, hold cookouts or otherwise supply food to their clients, which means visitors only in town for one day aren’t buying from local stores.

“They don’t do a whole lot (for local businesses), really,” he said. “It’s more of an aggravation, of them parking and changing clothes wherever and walking up the middle of the road.”

While the locals’ frustration over out-of-towners’ behavior is a longstanding issue, the Upper Yough’s recent popularity boom has newly irritated the old wound.

Residents report out-of-towners living out of their vehicles in the streets, drinking in public and changing clothes in the open or in private garages and sheds.

And the influx of visitors can bring as many as 150 additional cars into the town, with no parking area big enough to accommodate them all.

“It became exponential this year, with boaters parking in residential parts of the town,” said Jess Whittemore, a 30-year resident of the area and Town Council member.

Whittemore, himself a “river rat,” said he sees recreational boating as a “fantastic” economic opportunity for the town, if it’s handled correctly.

“If you step back and look at it, it’s just a lot of wallets walking into town. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of wallets,” he said. “What small town of 600 people doesn’t want that?”

But as Whittemore and other town officials point out, it’s not the municipality that’s currently cashing in on the Upper Yough. It’s county government.

Maryland assesses a 4.5 percent amusement tax on top of the fees clients pay to the whitewater outfitters. The state hands those dollars over to the county, because the spot where boaters put in to run the Yough is at Sang Run, outside the Friendsville limits.

Schlosnagle estimated that the county is taking in about $20,000 per year from the Upper Yough amusement tax, while Friendsville is getting approximately $800 per year in what amounts to voluntary contributions from some outfitters for use of the town’s public take-out area.

So on Aug. 24, Schlosnagle, Whittemore and the rest of the council went before the Garrett County Commission to ask for a piece of the amusement tax revenue.

“People come into our town and park their vehicles in our town,” Schlosnagle told the commission. “They’re shuttled up to Sang Run and float down to the town. … We feel we should get some portion of the money that comes to the county.”

The commission has taken their comments under advisement and is examining what can be done, according to County Administrator Monty Pagenhardt.

In the meeting, the commissioners steered the conversation away from tax dollars and in the direction of supplying more parking restriction signs to the town.

But Schlosnagle said more signs aren’t the answer. For one thing, the town has no money to hire even a part-time enforcement officer to make sure people are abiding by the restrictions.

“These really are opportunities,” commission President Ernie Gregg told the Friendsville council members. “From the time all this started, way back when, a lot of the local people disdained the river rats. But their money is green like anybody else’s and we need to … find a way to make this work.”

Agnes Lichtner runs the Riverside Hotel on Water Street. Lichtner, too, said she views the influx of visitors as a positive thing.

“When we see traffic, that’s business,” she said. “You have to grasp that opportunity.”

She acknowledged that few boaters stay overnight at the historic hotel, but said they often come in for meals in its restaurant.

“We have dinners that we serve, and they’re one of our No. 1 supporters,” she said. “When they come off the river they eat here, more than what the fishermen do.”

Whittemore said the number of problems with boaters has decreased since the organization American Whitewater stepped in and began putting the word out to the boating community to be more considerate while in Friendsville.

The town is also drafting a camping ordinance so that law enforcement can legally control nuisance camping on the streets or town property.

He hopes that new approaches to river visitors, with the help of redirected amusement tax dollars, will help locals embrace the tourism and recreation industry.

“Coal mining and timbering is a long-gone natural resource of our whole area, and this is the new resource,” he said. “It’s here, it’s never going to go away, which means the kayakers are never going to go away. The wallets are going to continue to walk into town.”

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