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Tourism is a quiet driver of local economy

April 13, 2013|By TIM ROWLAND

Dwelling as we have of late on Downtown Hagerstown’s cloudy future is all well and good, but at some point we might stop to remember that our inherent strength is changing over time. Instead of coming from the city, our economic engine is increasingly being fueled by the countryside — or any place or event that gets people out and about.

Some recent statistics show just how much this is true.

Tourism as measured by hotel occupancy rates was up 11.1 percent in 2012, three times higher than the the state’s second-place county (Talbot). The numbers were bolstered by the 150th Anniversary of Antietam, but perhaps not as much as might be expected. Rates were up in September, but kept climbing in October, indicating other forces were at work.

They are forces, Tom Riford believes, that even many longtime residents might not be aware of: Wineries, softball tournaments, mountain-bike racing, kayaking and master gardening demonstrations. The county has five national parks, eight state parks and 30 museums (highlighted during the upcoming Washington County Museum Ramble May 4 and 5).

Riford, president of the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, is a shameless promoter because, well, that’s his job. The agency’s aggressive marketing and some added venues attractive to tourists have helped the county experience a four-year run-up in tourism numbers, a positive trend that began in 2009, a year that didn’t have much going for it in terms of good economic news.

Big events such as the annual Western Maryland Blues Fest, Civil War anniversaries and Premium Outlets shopping trips carry plenty of tourism water, but don’t underestimate the economic impact of the JFK ultramarathon or other weekend sporting events that are becoming trendy with what Riford calls “citizen athletes.”

Because tourism doesn’t occupy a sprawling industrial plant along the interstate, its contribution to the economy tends to be largely invisible. Who outside of a few innkeepers would understand that in winter months Whitetail boosts Washington County room occupancy by 35 percent? How can people in Hagerstown know Williamsport’s secret — that the Great Allegheny Passage is flooding the county every summer with tired, hungry bicyclists?

“People just don’t believe that tourism can lead to such great economic generation,” Riford said. But look at our employment numbers: In 2011, the county reported 6,400 leisure and hospitality jobs. Last year the number swelled to 6,700, but the significant thing is that for the first time ever in Washington County, tourism jobs topped manufacturing jobs.

That won’t universally be hailed as good news. But for those in charge, it has to be respected as the new reality. That’s why the old way of handing financial incentives to developers while slamming the door on a South County rail trail represent 20th century thinking.

It was only by the grace of the financial crisis that stimulus money was available to help repair the C&O Canal towpath at Big Slackwater. And because of that circumstance, the feature is now an attraction to bicyclists instead of a reason to avoid Washington County (C&O National park use was up 91 percent last year). The Town of Williamsport understood the big picture and sacrificed a canal project of its own in order to provide the final financial match that released $12 million in stimulus money.

Watching the cyclists roll by, Williamsport realizes that, in today’s parlance, tourism is a giver, not a taker. Bikers, history fans, conventioneers and their ilk generated $300 million in Washington County last year. “And you don’t have to build tourists a school or a sewer-treatment plant,” Riford said.

As our EDC keeps looking for new ways to spur economic growth, tourism is already finding them. The Antietam Highlands Wine Trail will celebrate the fact that an industry that was presumed dead in Washington County is quietly experiencing a spectacular rebirth. Knob Hall (Clear Spring) and Red Heifer (Smithsburg) wineries are doing their part to boost tourism, and Rohrersville’s Big Cork and Sharpsburg’s Antietam wineries are about to join in the fun.

So tell the Hagerstown Suns to kiss off if you want, but remember that they, their competition and their fans spend $7 million a year in hotel rooms, food, gas and related goods and services. And these millions add up, be they in the form of baseball games, winery tours, film festivals, wagon-train re-enactments, watersports or what have you.

And as we’re looking for solutions to rehabilitate the downtown and economic growth, it would pay to remember that the answer might just be hidden in plain view.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. Reach him at timr@herald-mail.com.

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