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Legion convention could fill city's hotels

October 01, 1998|By JULIE E. GREENE

An American Legion organization expects up to 3,000 members to attend its annual convention in Hagerstown in 2001, making it the largest convention to be held in Washington County, officials said Wednesday.

"Everybody's excited about coming here," said George Cherepes, Forty and Eight's state secretary for Maryland. In the past, the convention has generated as much as $3 million to $4 million for host communities, he said in a telephone interview from his home in Beltsville, Md.

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The 2,000 to 3,000 veterans expected to attend the convention could pump more than $2 million into the community and fill between 1,000 and 1,800 hotel rooms, according to Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau officials.

The county has more than 1,600 rooms, but another hotel is expected to be built in time for the convention, said Julie Hoff, the bureau's director of sales.

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The convention will be the largest ever held in the county, said Ron Stansbury, who has been involved in local tourism since 1983, when he helped found Washington County Tourism Inc.

The weeklong convention, to run Sept. 10-16, 2001, will include a three-hour parade through downtown Hagerstown and a trip to a local children's hospital or orphanage, Cherepes said.

Cherepes has wanted the organization, formally known as the The Society of Forty Men and Eight Horses, to return to Maryland for years because the state is accessible to members who live in the central and eastern states. It was last held in Maryland in 1979, in Baltimore.

Washington County was selected because of its historical ties to the Civil War and because of the Ramada Inn and Convention Center, Cherepes said.

The Ramada will host the main convention and the Venice Inn will host the women's auxiliary convention, said Ben Hart, the tourism bureau's executive director.

"That's really a heck of a coup for the community," said Greg Larsen, a former tourism bureau sales representative who was part of the team that tried to secure the group's 1998 convention three years ago.

"It is going to be a challenge for the community to manage it because an event of that size is monstrous," Larsen said.

Hoff said the tourism community will begin preparing in the next few weeks for the convention.

"It's a big one. It's huge," said Ramada General Manager Jim Kell. "I think the whole community will truly benefit from this."

The county got the convention in part because the tourism bureau offered to provide free shuttle service to convention participants from Baltimore-Washington International Airport to Hagerstown and from the area's hotels to those where the convention will take place, Kell said.

Ramada sales officials Linda Williams and Bonnie Waltman took the unprecedented step of promising Forty and Eight officials all 210 of the Ramada's rooms for the convention - a last-minute decision Kell said he believes helped persuade the group to come to Hagerstown.

Hoff, Williams and Waltman made their pitch for Washington County on Sept. 17 at this year's convention in Louisville, Ky. The other two cities bidding for the convention were Louisville and Niagara Falls, N.Y., Hoff said.

Ocean City, Md., didn't have enough hotel rooms and Baltimore was too expensive, Cherepes said.

While in the area, members will travel to Antietam National Battlefield and possibly Gettysburg, Pa., and Harpers Ferry, W.Va., Cherepes said. A golf tournament will be held and there will be antiquing and shopping trips, he said.

The Forty and Eight got its name from the French boxcars into which American troops were crammed during World War I, Cherepes said. The boxcars had 40/8 marked on them because they could carry 40 men and eight horses.

The nonprofit group, made up of members of the American Legion, made more than $26 million in donations last year, Cherepes said.

The international organization, with 60,000 members, helps pay nursing school tuition for needy students and helps needy children, Cherepes said. The group also started a disaster relief program two years ago, he said.

There are 85 Forty and Eight members in Washington County and 1,100 members in the state, he said.

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