New tourism director says county's potential is unlimited

November 16, 1997

New tourism director says county's potential is unlimited


Staff Writer

After almost losing his job shortly after being hired in June as head of Washington County's tourism office, Executive Director Ben R. Hart has settled in and is excited about local tourism's future.

"I honestly believe our potential is so great it could almost be unlimited," said Hart, sitting in his 16 Public Square office on Friday afternoon.

So as not to limit that potential, Hart and his employees at the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau have created a new tourism logo, which includes the slogan "Making Maryland Memories."


Hart is hoping to capitalize on the familiarity of the slogan by borrowing from an old state tourism slogan, "Capture A Maryland Memory."

The logo features an American flag draped over a cannon to emphasize the area's ties to the Civil War, but also reflects on other local tourist attractions such as Fort Frederick.

"Obviously, the Civil War is the big hook, but there's a lot more to do here than the Civil War," said Hart.

That includes outdoor activities, antiquing, shopping and a variety of museums.

A new marketing campaign will soon kick off, including an ad featuring side-by-side pictures of the Civil War and a banquet room with a headline stating the area's meetings are a lot more civil than they used to be, Hart said.

Things seem more civil for the Colorado Springs, Colo., native since one county commissioner questioned his hiring here hours after Hart, 48, resigned as president and chief executive officer of the Greater Grand Forks, N.D., Convention and Visitors Bureau on June 18.

Commissioner Ronald L. Bowers suggested putting Hart's hiring on hold until differences could be worked out between the commissioners and the then temporary tourism board.

Bowers said Sunday he had nothing personal against Hart, who signed a three-year contract. He makes $50,000 a year plus possible incentives.

The former board had come under fire from some commissioners, who said they thought the short-term board had overstepped its bounds by closing information centers and laying off employees.

The matter was settled when a new board was elected on July 31, although Bowers said he thinks the commissioners and Hagerstown City Council deserve an update on the tourism bureau's progress.

Hart said he expects to meet the former board's goal of shifting the focus of the bureau's budget from salaries to marketing in January. In the next month, new officers and bylaws are expected to be in place.

With the office restructured, including new staff and equipment, the transition phase is coming to a close, said Hart, who is living in a Williamsport apartment.

"Now we move into the rock 'n' roll portion."

That includes the Prime Retail outlet mall, which could open as soon as summer 1999, and a living history project in conjunction with the film, "Gods and Generals," which could begin filming that same summer.

The Maryland Theatre and Hagerstown Suns also are tourism and economic development attractions, which Hart said he is convinced community leaders won't allow to die, despite their recent troubles with ticket sales.

"I don't think we've even scratched the surface of the potential of this area," Hart said.

Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said Hart will bring fresh ideas to the community and he's not afraid to speak out.

Hart is already sharing his opinions about whether this community needs a larger convention center.

"If (we're) going to be responsible for marketing the facility, it has to be the right one." A convention center for 10,000 people shouldn't be built if there are only 2,000 hotel rooms in the city, he said. "There's nothing worse than sitting there with an empty building to drain resources."

Hart has 22 years in tourism, a field in which he has found comfort and excitement,even though he fell into it by fate - and the need to make more money.

Earning $2.92 an hour for Colorado Springs' park and recreation department, Hart jumped at an offer to make $1,000 a month in December 1975 as a one-man office for a Pikes Peak tourism trade association.

He later would direct tourism for the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Colorado Tourism Board in Denver.

Helping create a nongovernment state tourism office in Colorado made Hart realize how important tourism is as an economic development tool.

Making Washington County residents realize that will be part of his job, Hart said. Tourism can create jobs and generate revenue so residents aren't taxed more, he said.

Hart, who is divorced, has three children living with their mother in Wisconsin.

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