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History is big draw

September 07, 1999|By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

This summer's drought brought tourism to a trickle at Greenbrier State Park, which couldn't open its popular lake for swimming this year because the water level was too low.

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Despite a fee cut to try to boost attendance, the park, just east of Hagerstown off U.S. 40, had a marked decrease in visitation and revenue, said Assistant Manager Al Preston.

Preston estimated park revenue, about two-thirds of which comes in during July, August and September, is about $100,000 behind normal this year.

Since the lake's water level was lowered last fall so maintenance could be performed on the dam, there hasn't been nearly enough precipitation to replace it, so the lake couldn't be opened at all this year, he said.

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Other state parks haven't had the same handicap, however.

The drought didn't thin visitation to Washington Monument, Gathland and South Mountain state parks, where history, not swimming, is the big draw, Preston said.

Attendance at those parks ran about normal, maybe a little ahead, he said.

On a normal year, the four parks together draw nearly 750,000 visitors, with Greenbrier bringing in close to 500,000 of them, Preston said.

Overall, this summer was a mixed bag for area tourist attractions, according to visitation figures leading up to Labor Day weekend.

At the western edge of Washington County, Sideling Hill Exhibit Center - which grabs travelers off Interstate 68 - saw a substantial increase in visitors over last summer, according to office supervisor Sherian Hose.

Monthly attendance was up in June, July and August, with a total of 91,900 visitors during the three months, according to Hose's figures.

That was 38,785 more than last summer, according to the figures.

Because Sideling Hill is also a welcome center, visitation picks up at heavier travel times, like Labor Day weekend, Hose said.

September and October are among the busiest months because of people coming out to see fall foliage, she said.

Fort Frederick State Park, also in the western part of the county, saw a drop in visitation compared to last summer, according to Hose.

Running a little ahead of last year in June, visitation dropped off in July and August, according to Hose's figures.

There were 39,324 visitors for the three months, 9,679 visitors behind 1998, according to the figures.

History-drenched Antietam National Battlefield saw about a 4 percent increase in visitation this summer, according to Superintendent John W. Howard.

The visitors center logged 39,821 visitors in June, compared to 31,940 in June 1998. There were 39,188 visitors in July, compared to 36,212 visitors in July 1998, Howard said.

August figures weren't available yet, he said.

Visits should increase over the next few weeks.

"September is always our busiest month because it's our battle anniversary," he said.

In September, attendance on a Saturday or Sunday ranges from 12,000 to 14,000, compared to 6,000 to 7,000 visitors on a typical summer weekend, Howard said.

The park is becoming an almost year-round attraction, thanks in a large part to increased interest, he said.

The Convention and Visitors Bureau deserves credit for using history to market the county to tourists, Howard said.

Also, Antietam is getting a reputation in the Civil War community for being the finest representation of a Civil War battlefield, without an incursion of modern growth around it, he said.

The county's parks weren't the only tourist spots to see a boost this summer.

It has been an unusually good summer at the Hagerstown Roundhouse Museum, said 1st Vice President Bob Tracey, who thinks free advertising in national publications for railroad enthusiasts is having an effect.

While there isn't an accurate figure for the summer, Tracey said he thinks visitation will be between 20,000 and 25,000 for the year, compared to 15,000 to 20,000 in recent years.

The Hagerstown Suns' attendance for the season was running about the same as 1998 as of Thursday, according to Media Relations Director Mike Heckman.

At that point, the team had 68 games in a row without a rainout, Heckman said. The team faced one rainout over the weekend.

The team had 11 rainouts - a league high - in 1998, he said.

The Suns' attendance in the 1998 season was 109,932, Heckman said.

Lodging tax revenue is the only hard data that the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau can use to compare tourism this summer to last summer, said Executive Director Ben Hart.

July and August revenue information isn't available yet, Hart said.

Lodging tax revenue was up in May and June, he said.

May revenue was 6.5 percent higher and June revenue was 6.2 percent higher than in the same months last year, Hart said.

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