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The quiet visitors who help our economy

January 15, 2006|By BOB MAGINNIS

Sometimes it's difficult for me to think of Washington County as a major tourist destination. After all, nobody with a guidebook and a foreign accent has brushed by me on the sidewalk lately, or asked me for directions. When I consider traditional tourist venues, we do have the Antietam National Battlefield, but a visit there is more about solemn reflection than it is about fun and entertainment.

But if county residents have been spared a crush of visitors or long lines of traffic creeping along local streets, it's not because nobody is visiting. About 1.3 million people spent the night here during 2005, about 100,000 more than the year before. That increase isn't happening by accident, according to Tom Riford, president and CEO of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

This week I spent a couple of hours with Riford, who talks about tourism like a good preacher speaks about scripture - with an inspired enthusiasm and what seems to be a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the subject and its importance to the local economy.

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Without tourism-related jobs here, he said, "The unemployment rate would double."

Overnight visitors spent $187.7 million here in 2005, up from $176.1 million the year before, Riford said. He noted that total doesn't count what was spent by day-trippers, who come for a short visit to the battlefield, one of the local museums or Prime Outlets.

Group and convention business in 2005 was up 19 percent from 2004, which was up 40 percent from 2003, he said. And because the average daily room rent here is $64 as compared to $75 in Frederick, hotel occupancy was at 70 percent for six months of last year. Overall occupancy for the year was up 5 percent from 2004.

"We had positive publicity. Booking more conventions helped, and on top of that, we've got a lot of things for people to do," he said.

"We are No. 1 in the State of Maryland on the retail opportunity index, which is the amount of retail square footage per-capita. All that retail space couldn't possibly be supported by the people who live here," he said.

To get good press, CVB places ads in a variety of publications and Riford writes some promotional pieces himself. The conference table in his office is covered with brochures, copies of ads and publications that CVB has either printed or placed articles in.

It is an impressive body of work and an accomplishment made more surprising by the fact that Riford and the CVB had a rough start when he was hired in March 2004. The agency was in debt so deeply Riford figured it would take three to five years to work back to solvency.

Now the debt has been paid back - albeit with some help from city and county governments, which forgave much of what was owed them. An increase in the percentage of room tax CVB gets also helped, but Riford said more was needed.

The agency went from five full-time people to three, kept down expenses by using part-timers and began building the cash reserve suggested by its auditors, Riford said.

"Then we took a hard look at our costs. We owed the county government $20,000 and in 2004 we went before the County Commissioners and asked forgiveness on that," he said.

"Four or five months after that, we asked the city for forgiveness for $7,800 in back rent. The council discussed it and then approved it," he said.

The Visitors Center, which sells a variety of books and gifts related to the area and its history, is breaking even for the first time, Riford said.

CVB revenue has increased slightly, Riford said, but added there are now 245 members of the grooup. He expects there will be more in 2006, when a variety of hotel projects are completed and plans for the redevelopment of Hagerstown's East End proceed, possibly with plans for a city convention center with exhibition space.

No, this isn't Gettysburg, Pa. Many of the tourists come because their association or fraternal group is having its convention here. And when there's no official business being done, they can amuse themselves in other ways. The fact that it all seems to happen without much effort is due to the fact that Riford and the CVB know enough to draw attention to the county's attractions, then stand back and let them speak for themselves.

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