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Build a convention center? First let's change attitudes

February 07, 2003

Build a convention center in Washington County?

If the idea proposed this week sounds familiar, it's because a citizen task force and a group of Frostburg State University MBA students studied the idea in the late 1990s. The study found some significant hurdles to overcome to make the project a reality.

The June 1997 proposal was for a $9 million facility that would accommodate up to 5,000 people. At the time, Ben Hart, director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, said it would allow Hagerstown to draw events too small for the Baltimore Convention Center, but too large for existing local facilities.

But by the time the study had been assigned to the Frostburg group, its size had been trimmed down to 3,000 people and the study group assumed that a separate, privately financed hotel would be built, along with parking for at least 800 cars.

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The study also found that Baltimore and the state's more urbanized areas were the preferred conventions, in part because of their proximity to major airports.

And so, the study said, a Hagerstown facility could not market itself on the basis of location. Instead, the study suggested it could emphasis its lower cost.

The study also said it might be possible to emphasize the area's Civil War history, so convention-goers would be able to take side trips during the event or extend their trips to do sight-seeing.

Since then Prime Outlets has also developed as an attraction, but before anyone talks about building a convention center, there must be a plan to make the community more visitor-friendly and emphasize the attractions that are here.

Over the years there's been much talk about Civil War tourism, but between re-enactments of the Battle of Antietam, not much has been done, except for a proposal for a museum that would have required demolition of half a block in downtown Hagerstown.

Also needed: Hospitality training for local retail store and restaurant staff. When a visitor asks where Antietam Battlefield is, the reply should not be a vacant stare. Until the people who meet visitors to Washington County understand that they're all goodwill ambassadors, this area won't succeed in becoming a preferred destination for those who hold conventions.

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