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Canal seen as potential river of revenue

July 18, 2009|By DAVE McMILLION

TRI-STATE -- Tourism associated with the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park in the Tri-State area is big business.

Some people think the canal can be an even bigger draw.

A number of ideas are being floated to improve the canal and the experience it offers. If all or some of the initiatives are successful, they would lead to new construction jobs, said Tom Riford, president and chief executive officer of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The results of that labor would, in turn, have a significant impact on tourism and a spinoff of more tourism jobs, Riford said.

Riford said a big benefit of increased tourism is no new schools or sewer plants are needed to accommodate more visitors.

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"They spend money and they leave," Riford said. "More and more, we see that tourism is becoming a lifesaver."

In Washington County alone, an estimated 600,000 people visit the old commercial transportation route every year and spend $9 million, according to statistics from the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce and the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The C&O Canal passes local towns such as Williamsport and Hancock in Maryland and Shepherdstown and Harpers Ferry in West Virginia.

A Pennsylvania tourism official who has been helping local officials assess tourism potential along the canal said those towns are unique because they retain much of their original character.

Business owners and tourism officials said the towns and their C&O Canal access points draw canal users, particularly bicyclists who use the adjacent towpath.

All of this has tourism officials and others considering what untapped potential might exist in connection with the C&O Canal and its towpath.

Assessing the situation

Teams of analysts have fanned out in the Washington County towns of Hancock and Williamsport and in Brunswick and Point of Rocks in Frederick County, Md., to determine what can be done to attract more tourists.

More recently, Shepherdstown and Harpers Ferry decided they wanted to be involved, and assessments also were conducted in those towns, officials said.

Such assessments are conducted with the help of the Trail Town Program, an economic development initiative designed to help towns along the Great Allegheny Passage capitalize on tourism, according to its Web site at www.trailtowns.org.

The Great Allegheny Passage is a 150-mile trail between Cumberland, Md., and Pittsburgh that was connected to the C&O Canal in 2006.

When previous assessments were conducted for towns along the Great Allegheny Passage, the work led to the creation of 107 jobs, 24 new businesses and a $12 million economic impact to the region, said Cathy McCullom, regional director of the Trail Town Program.

The assessments look at a number of issues, such as:

o Are there places where riders can get their bicycles fixed?

o Are there plenty of restaurants and ice cream shops?

o Are there places that sell beer?

o If a visitor who is hiking or bicycling on the trail buys a clock at an antique store, can the shop owner mail it home for the visitor?

Assessment teams of about 25 people, including trail users, town residents, planners and business owners, went through the local towns to determine if there were enough restaurants of various types, if there were places to lock up bicycles, if businesses were well-marked and if crossings were safe, among other things, McCullom said.

It became obvious there was a need for signs to direct canal visitors into the towns and signs to direct people in the towns to the trail, McCullom said.

Another need was for a wider variety of businesses, McCullom said.

For instance, she said, there are fast-food places in the towns, but there is a need for additional casual-dining restaurants.

In Brunswick, there is no lodging, an obvious issue to address, McCullom said.

"You got to get the folks to stay overnight," McCullom said.

On the plus side, McCullom said, some of the towns have great buildings that are vacant. If towns determine what they need to do to capitalize on tourism, the buildings could figure into the solutions, McCullom said.

McCullom said she thinks Williamsport has nice retail areas, and the town's streets are wide enough to allow for bicycle lanes, McCullom said.

William T. Justice, chief of interpretation for the C&O Canal, said the assessments are similar to Main Street revitalization programs in which Tri-State-area municipalities have participated. Justice said it "makes all the sense in the world" for local towns to undertake the assessments, given they have a national park "passing right through their front yard."

At a June 25 meeting in Williamsport, officials from that town and from Brunswick and Hancock met to explore applying for technical assistance through the National Park Service, McCullom said. The technical assistance would help the towns continue their tourism enhancement efforts and raise money for the work, McCullom said.

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