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The value of travel and recreation to a growing community

July 31, 2005|By Tim Rowland

Not everyone scowls when the price of a gallon of gasoline goes north of $2. Not everyone wrings their hands at swelling population centers to the east.

After all, it's nice to have nearly 8 million people within a full gas tank of your business.

In this instance, the business is local tourism, and the numbers seem to hint that something - possibly higher gas prices - is putting the spurs to the travel-related economy.

Washington County has more hotel rooms, and more of them are full, than ever before. Visits to the local tourism welcome center are increasing, and tourism-related employment numbers are significantly higher.

Simply put, when piling into the SUV and motoring off to Niagra Falls can cost a family from Gaithersburg $180 in fuel costs alone, there is a keener interest in finding the hidden travel treasures in one's own backyard.

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Perhaps that's why eight out of 10 hotel rooms in Washington County are booked on any given night, with some hotels recording an unthinkable 97 percent occupancy rate, according to Tom Riford, president of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Occupancy is so strong that hotels franchised by the upscale Hilton and Mariott chains are breaking ground within the year and existing hotels are expanding - doubling their space, in some instances. Jellystone Park is engaged in a major expansion, and convention business is booming.

But the numbers look so solid that it's probably a little more than gas prices that factor into the explanation. In truth, the same old forces that are driving the local housing market are probably driving the local tourism market: population and prices.

Population in the Washington metro area has grown almost 4 percent since 2000, and by 2025 will have grown by another 2.5 million people, according to Census estimates.

Those people have to live and play somewhere. And it costs less to live and play here. But if housing growth is viewed with trepidation, tourism growth should be viewed with celebration.

Tourism growth is housing growth without the headaches. Taxes are paid, businesses are patronized and people are put to work, but without the need for schools or sewer lines.

In Washington County, tourism-related jobs produced a $17.6 million payroll in the fourth quarter of 2004, up from $15 million in the fourth quarter of 2003 - and the industry added nearly 600 jobs to the county over the same period, according to Maryland Department of Labor figures.

But leisure has a second, and possibly more important, role as we look at the long-term future of the county and region.

It's no revelation by now that many of the people who are moving into the Washington County do not work here. They're spending two to four hours on the commuting road each day, leaving them with few daylight hours in which to become acquainted with, and become a part of, the community.

Potentially, these are valuable citizens - educated, successful, well-off - and we want to take advantage of their talents. Eventually they may start businesses of their own here, or volunteer for civic duty or devote their energy to local schools and churches.

So it may fall to recreation, parks and traditional tourist destinations to more and more become "interpretive centers" as these people become acquainted with their surroundings.

"As the new houses have gone up, we've seen a change of use in the park," said John Howard, superintendent of Antietam National Battlefield. "Probably 10 percent of our monthly visitors are coming for what I would call recreational purposes, like walking or jogging. And new residents are coming to visit for the first time."

In other words, the park is the ambassador between Washington County and Washington County commuters. I would bet the same could be said for the Western Maryland Rail Trail, the Museum of Fine Arts, Devil's Backbone and Fort Frederick.

More interesting things are popping up for people to do. This summer the Washington County Arts Council is sponsoring wonderful little concerts in the downtown University park at lunchtime on Thursdays, and Saturday evenings in City Park. Arts director Kevin Moriarty sees the noontime concert as a way to offer a little extra reward for people who work downtown. And the Saturday concerts draw new and old residents alike in to see the city and City Park, one of the county's finest jewels.

Same for the Hagerstown Suns, where new faces pop up with increasing regularity. Hagerstown got some positive press on the front page of USA Today last week, and the reason was the Suns. Now maybe it's clear that the City Council has been correct all these years for standing up for the home team, even when times weren't so good.

As a matter of fact, there may even come a time when we owe a tip of the hat to the new folk for 'discovering' things within our midst that we (myself included) sometimes fail to appreciate because they are so routine to us they have become part of the background.

They second favor the newcomers can do us is to invite their friends up for the weekend. What better advertising for the region than a commuter family asking a couple of coworkers up on some sunny Saturday to ride bikes, play golf, go antiquing or pick up some fresh peaches at a local fruit stand?

Local business and governments would be smart to recognize the connection and do all they can to foster this "work there, play here" relationship. Yes, new housing developments have their costs. But that's even more reason to identify the positive contributions they can provide to our community and encourage these contributions for all they are worth.

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