One of Western Maryland's newest tourist attractions these days is not some pristine lake or lush green forest but a startling 340-foot deep, V-shaped notch cut into a mountaintop to make way for Interstate 68.

About 600,000 people a year are stopping at the exhibit center atop Sideling Hill to marvel at the panoramic views and the multicolored veins of newly exposed rock dating to as long as 350 million years ago.

The man-made wonder stands in stark contrast to the rolling, peaceful countryside that surrounds it. Progress, or what passes for it, is altering the face of Western Maryland, producing economic changes so profound that the area's once sure-minded people find themselves uncertain about their future and who should lead them.

The biggest success of I-68 wasn't supposed to be the notch in Sideling Hill. The interstate was intended to revitalize an economy no longer dominated by heavy industry. Mack Trucks, Kelly Springfield tires and Fairchild Industries all have scaled back or closed plants.

But new business has been slow in arriving. And the jobs it brings are unfamiliar to many longtime residents. The new employers are credit-card processing companies such as Citicorp Credit Services Inc. or retailers and small, nonunion companies where big paychecks and opportunities for advancement are tougher to come by.

So pervasive is the economic unrest that Democratic voters, who for 22 years in a row had been choosing a Byron to represent them in Congress, turned against seven-term incumbent Beverly B. Byron in the primary this year to nominate a little-known state delegate from Frederick named Thomas H. Hattery. Now President Bush is receiving only lukewarm support from an area that gave him 65 percent of the vote in 1988.

"The people are upset because they don't think the politicians have been keeping up with the times," said Cumberland's newly elected mayor, Edward C. Athey (R). "We can't sit back and rely upon what was done in the past. We've got to make it happen now. . . .We have a saying out here: 'The help at the end of your arms is called your hands.' "

Debate about the transformation can be heard from one end of Western Maryland to the other, whether it's the talk in a hardware store in Frederick or a bull session in a barbershop in far northwestern Garrett County. It also can be heard on Sideling Hill at the western edge of Washington County.

Randy Davis, 23, was heading east on I-68 to pick up seafood and produce to take back west when he pulled into the Sideling Hill rest area. The new road makes his commute easier, but has put many of his customers along Route 40 out of business, he said.

"You wonder sometimes if we just traded one road for another, one bunch of businesses for another. Is this new road so much better?" he asked.

Western Maryland's economy is healthiest in Frederick, but conditions steadily decline heading west to Hagerstown, Cumberland and Garrett County.

Frederick County looks a lot like any other outer suburb of Washington or Baltimore. New subdivisions and office buildings dot the landscape. Commuters clog highways. Crowded schools spill into portable classrooms.

"We don't consider Frederick part of Western Maryland anymore. We like to think of ourselves as one corner of a big market that includes Washington, Baltimore, Annapolis and Frederick," said Jerry Moomau, the director of a Frederick economic development group.

During the 1980s, Frederick's population grew by 31 percent -- more than twice as much as the state -- to 150,200, as newcomers came in search of lower-cost housing and a slower pace.

Frederick's once-dormant downtown is making a comeback as a cozy restaurant and antiques center. Commerce along the county's "Golden Mile" shopping strip on Route 40 remains busy enough to generate midday traffic jams.

The July unemployment rate in Frederick County, 5.2 percent, was lower than the statewide rate of 6.5 percent. Yet in Hagerstown and surrounding Washington County, the unemployment rate was 8.9 percent, and it was 10.7 percent in Cumberland and surrounding Allegany County as well as in Garrett.

Just north of Frederick, in the growing suburban town of Walkersville, Lois Poffenbarger, 49, said a family business specializing in sheet metal and roofing work evolved into a store selling hardware and gifts to improvement-minded suburbanites. "We've had to change to keep up," she said.

Heading west, over the South Mountain range, Hagerstown appears to be on the verge of a Frederick-style transformation. New suburban settlements are popping up near Interstate 70 in Washington County, which grew only 7.3 percent in the 1980s. The town also is trying to draw industries to north-south Interstate 81 much like Frederick capitalized on high-tech businesses locating on Interstate 270.

Already, Citicorp Credit Services has brought 1,300 jobs to the I-81 corridor.

Hagerstown is trying to revitalize its turn-of-the-century downtown, and a local version of the "Golden Mile" has taken root in a former rail yard to the southwest. The strip, which some have nicknamed the "Platinum Mile," is anchored by a shopping mall and includes a row of big discounters such as K mart, Wal-Mart, Sam's Club and a Lowe's home improvement center.

But as much as Hagerstown seems poised for the future, the transition is painful for many at present.

Hagerstown residents still talk about the jobs lost in the early 1980s in cutbacks at a Fairchild Industries aircraft plant and a Mack Trucks factory. They find it unsettling that the new companies, which generally pay less and offer less security, are replacing some of the community's most-established businesses.

Just last week, M.P. Moller Co., the world's largest manufacturer of pipe organs and a city institution since 1880, narrowly avoided extinction after an extraordinary coalition of investors covered its debts.

But workers are preparing to close the Larsen-Juhl picture framemaking plant, whose roots in Hagerstown date to 1957.

Joanne Fillingham, an assistant for personnel, said Larsen-Juhl employed 150 before the recession. She said the company might have weathered the downtown if its plan to build warehousing facilities had not been turned down by zoning authorities.

"Some people think that had something to do with the plant closing," Fillingham said. "There's an anti-government feeling among many of them now."

In such an environment, some residents are skeptical of economic development efforts such as sprucing up downtown.

"If you tell the average person you are planting trees in the downtown and putting up new street lights, they say, 'So what?' " said Charles Sekula, who is working on a revitalization effort. "But we're trying to create an atmosphere that welcomes new businesses and in time, people will see the progress. . . .But it is a slow process."

Sekula, who immigrated to the area from Germany, in many ways embodies the changes he's talking about. He left his job as a Mack Trucks machinist in 1985 to open a Bavarian restaurant. "I saw the handwriting on the wall," Sekula said. "This is a new age."

So far, the new age has been even harsher for communities west of Hagerstown. In Cumberland, a steady loss of jobs has forced many to look elsewhere. Allegany County's population dipped by 7 percent in the 1980s, to 74,946. County leaders have been so eager for jobs that they have welcomed new state and federal prisons.

New regional air service out of Cumberland Airport and the opening of I-68 has brought more traffic to the area and has helped fill hotel rooms. Plans for a golf course and small convention center at the 3,200-acre Rocky Gap State Park should generate more interest in the area.

But, Mayor Athey said, "I'm not aware of any industry picking up or businesses relocating to the area because of I-68."

"Tourism remains our biggest commodity right now," said Bill Cihlar, the park manager at Rocky Gap.

Athey, a 56-year-old Republican and lifelong Cumberland resident, predicts the sluggish local economy will spell trouble for Bush. "A lot of people think he's not paying enough attention to local concerns," he said.

A little farther west, in a two-room barbershop and beauty salon in a little Garrett County town of Friendsville, population 577, a handful of local residents and vacationers spent a rainy afternoon talking about jobs and the president.

"Bush had his opportunities. And he has not made much of them, except when he's dealing with problems across the waters. That's not enough. We need a change," said barber Joe Sessa, 40, waving a humming electric clipper. "We need more industry out here."

"Bush, he never appealed to me," commented Tom Whoolery, a 50-year-old vacationing coal miner. "He seems to be for the rich instead of working people like me. But I'll probably vote Republican all the same because I'm pro-life."

There was agreement among those at the barbershop that the 1980s brought little prosperity to their edge of Maryland. Flashy new vacation homes popped up around Deep Creek Lake and nearby ski resorts, but that development failed to generate much commerce or attract industry.

"If things were going good, we would see a lot more little shops opening up. There would be more things to do on a rainy day," said Mary Ellen Sessa, Joe Sessa's wife and the manager of the beauty parlor.

For now, Friendsville measures its economic victories in tiny steps.

Mayor Spenser Schlosnagle, who works as a desk clerk in a nearby resort hotel, talked with pride about the new company in town that builds white-water rafts.

"They employ 12 people," he bragged.