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Tourism numbers looking up for Washington County in '04

October 23, 2004|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

Madeleine Snyder and her sister-in-law, Wanda Cunningham, had just begun their weekend shopping expedition Friday afternoon.

"It's kind of a girls weekend. ... No guys," said Snyder, 49, with bags already piling at her feet on a bench at Prime Outlets.

"Believe it or not, I'm not really a shopper," Snyder said.

The two live about a half-hour from Charlottesville, Va., but this is their third trip to Hagerstown, which is 21/2 hours away. They shop, stay at a local hotel and eat at the local restaurants.

It is something that appears to be on the increase.

As far as tourism goes, 2004 has been good to Washington County so far.

Hotel occupancy rates, one of the key measures of tourism activity, are up 15.6 percent over this time last year, according to Smith Travel Research, a Tennessee tourism data tracking company.

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Occupancies are the highest they've been in 10 years, said Thomas Riford, president and CEO of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

And that, Riford said, can't be bad for local jobs, local business and local government.

Revenue from the 2,000-plus hotel rooms tracked in the county increased in line with the occupancy rates, according to Smith Travel. By this time last year, local hotels had recorded $16.5 million in room fees. This year, that number has increased to about $19.1 million.

Most of that money is flagged for the county's hotel-motel tax, a 6 percent tax on lodging.

In the fiscal year ending this past June, the county hauled in about $1.19 million in hotel-motel taxes, County Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said. Of that money, the county received about $643,000, and Riford's group received about $574,000.

Snook said the county's portion was used to either lure new businesses to the county or help keep other businesses here. If the tax rates increase at the same rate as the occupancy rates - which is expected - there should be more money to help bring businesses to the county.

Snook said he believed that might be one of the reason that the tourism business ticked up a few notches.

"That's the whole purpose of using that money, is to perpetuate that kind of growth," Snook said.

In the first three months of this year, there were 5,066 people employed in Washington County in the leisure and hospitality industry, many of whom fall in the tourism category, according to state labor statistics. That represented about 7.4 percent of total county employment.

Riford said the employment statistic is a strength, but visitors also spend money at gas stations, restaurants, stores and museums, and generally don't require as much service from local tax dollars.

"Tourism is an important part of the Washington County economy," Riford said.

For Snyder and Cunningham, however, tourism in Hagerstown is just a good time.

By the end of the weekend, they said they expect to have shopped about 20 hours and eaten two dinners apiece at local chain restaurants such as Red Lobster or Outback Steakhouse, and Snyder's Jeep Cherokee will barely have enough room for the goods they're bringing back to their families.

Cunningham, 55, said even though the shopping bags already had begun mounting "so far, we've only shopped for ourselves."

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