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Civil War Heritage area designated

July 24, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

When it comes to historical significance, the Civil War battlefields at Gettysburg, Pa., and Antietam are neck-and-neck rivals.

When it comes to visitors, however, Gettysburg's supremacy is unchallenged. It draws about 1.5 million tourists each year, compared with about 250,000 to Antietam.

Tapping into that tourism base is the driving force behind the new Civil War Heritage Preservation and Tourism Area, which Maryland conferred upon parts of Washington, Frederick and Carroll counties last week.

"Maryland has always suffered by comparison to Gettysburg when it comes to Civil War recognition," said Ed McDonough, a spokesman for the state Department of Housing and Community Development, which oversees the heritage program.

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The designation sets up the area to receive state grants and assistance in coordinating marketing and preservation efforts.

Leaders from the three counties will spend the next year or so devising a management plan. If approved, the area will go from a Recognized Heritage Area to a Certified Heritage Area.

The Washington-Frederick-Carroll area and a area in Southern Maryland became the eighth- and ninth-recognized heritage zones in the state, McDonough said. One area, the Canal Place in Cumberland, Md., has achieved Certified Heritage Area status.

The area that Washington County is part of includes all of the county's municipalities and such historic Civil War attractions as Antietam National Battlefield, South Mountain and the Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick.

"There are quite a few areas of importance in the Civil War. This ties them together," McDonough said. "It's a way to get a little synergy."

Once is becomes a certified area, the Washington-Frederick-Carroll zone will be eligible for state matching grants. There is about $3 million budgeted for the heritage program, McDonough said.

Robert Arch, the director of the Washington County Planning Commission, said the first step will be to apply for a state grant to hire a consultant to help develop the management plan.

Once it becomes certified, the area could seek state funds for such expenses as brochures and advertising campaigns.

"A lot of this is still in the evolutionary form," Arch said.

State officials hope the program will help Maryland capitalize on an increasingly popular tourism niche. A recent Travel Industry Association of America study found that nearly 54 million adults visited a historic site or museum within the last year.

"Twenty years ago, you used to pack up the station wagon and for two weeks go to one spot. That's not true anymore," said Ben R. Hart, the executive director of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau. "There are very few single destinations anymore."

Hart said the heritage program will allow different Civil War attractions to benefit from one another.

"This provides us with the funds to promote it properly. It's fine to have a product, but if you don't have the funds, it doesn't do much good," he said.

Not everyone involved in the program is looking to boost tourism, however.

"We're not interested in boosting tourism in Sharpsburg," said Sharpsburg Mayor George Kesler.

Kesler said his town decided to join the effort only because it did not want to be left out of the loop. He said the town has an arms-length relationship with the tourists who visit nearby Antietam.

"At the present time, most of the tourists are interested in the Civil War. They drive through Sharpsburg, but then they continue on to other destinations," he said.

"We would expect that to continue, because we're going to do nothing in Sharpsburg to entice them to stay here."

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