By DON AINES
1:22 PM PST, March 2, 2013
Editor’s note: This is one in an occasional series of stories about findings and recommendations in the Hagerstown and Washington County Economic Development Strategic Plan.
Sunday’s stories look at travel and tourism.
Coming Monday: Areas with potential
Finding ways to put more “heads in beds” was among the recommendations for the travel and tourism industry in an economic development strategic plan, but Washington County’s top tourism official said the number of overnight stays was up significantly last year.
“Washington County has an array of attractions — national and state parks, Civil War sites ... plus proximity to major urban areas and an enviable interstate highway service, but has yet to convert these assets to significant numbers of overnight visitors,” according to the strategic plan prepared for the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission, the Economic Development Strategic Planning Task Force and the Hagerstown-Washington County Industrial Foundation Inc.
“While the county attracts sizable numbers of day visitors ... hotel occupancy data and other statistics show that overnight visitor traffic is lacking,” the plan said. “Heads in beds have the greatest economic impact and are essential to a thriving tourist industry.”
“Looking at overnight visitors, we had a great 2012, the best in a decade,” Thomas B. Riford, president and chief executive officer of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said in an email. “The overnight visitors generated an increase of 12 percent in lodging occupancy” and lodging tax revenue, he said.
The county collected $1.8 million in lodging taxes in 2011-12, up from about $1.6 million in 2010-11, according to county Treasurer Todd L. Hershey’s office.
Hotel occupancy has continued to increase in the first months of 2013, Riford said.
Half of the 6 percent tax on lodging goes to the county, which keeps 64 percent to fund tourism, economic development, or arts and cultural programs, and shares the other 36 percent with municipalities, said Debra Murray, the county’s director of budget and finance. The other half goes to the convention and visitors bureau to market and promote tourism, Riford said.
There were nearly 2 million overnight visitors last year in a county with about 2,500 hotel rooms and other short-term accommodations, such as bed-and-breakfasts and cabins, Riford said.
“It is true we have a lot more day-trippers than overnight visitors because we couldn’t handle the huge number of day-trippers if they all tried to spend the night here,” Riford said.
The economic development plan prepared by Urbanomics Inc. listed national and state parks, historic sites and the outdoors among the county’s competitive economic strengths. Arts, culture and entertainment were another area of competitive strength, it said.
Washington County draws a lot of day visitors due, in part, to being within a relatively short driving distance of the 8 million people in the Washington-Baltimore region, the report said.
Visitor spending accounts for more than $300 million per year, and contributes about $60 million per year in local taxes, according to Maryland Office of Tourism figures, Riford said.
Additionally, leisure and hospitality employment grew by about 500 jobs to 6,700, or about 10 percent of the county’s work force, Riford said. That category includes hotel and restaurant workers, as well as park, museum, recreational facility and sports facility employees, Riford said.
Employment grew in all sectors of leisure and hospitality, Riford said. That does not include government workers at federal or state parks, or anyone involved in destination retail, such as the people who work at Hagerstown Premium Outlets, Riford said.
Last year was the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, an anniversary that generated a number of related special events, along with traditional events at the national battlefield, such as the Salute to Independence in July and the luminaria display in December.
Antietam and more
In addition to Antietam National Battlefield, 78 miles of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park run through Washington County. Of the more than 4.7 million who visited the C&O Canal in 2012, about 1.3 million came to Washington County, Riford said, citing National Park Service figures. That was up from about 700,000 the year before, he said.
Riford said the increase was due in part to the reopening of the Big Slackwater section of the canal towpath for the first time in 40 years after an $18 million renovation project. Completion of the Great Allegheny Passage, linking Pittsburgh and Washington, also opened the canal to more bicyclists, he said.
Canal visitors spent an estimated $15 million in local communities, he said.
The South Mountain Recreation Area, which includes South Mountain State Park, South Mountain State Battlefield, and Greenbrier, Washington Monument and Gathland state parks, draws more than 700,000 per year, Superintendent Dan Spedden said.
“Greenbrier State Park is so popular, we’ve had to turn people away,” Spedden said.
The parks’ cultural and historical attractions have experienced steady increases in attendance and he expects a spike in May, when the recreation area’s three renovated museums reopen.
The growth of tourism has helped the county weather the loss of local jobs in other industries during the sluggish economy of the past few years, Riford said.
The five-year action plan included in the study had three recommendations for travel and tourism, including working to attract a Cabela’s, Bass Pro Shop or other outdoors superstore.
“We already have destination retail,” Riford said. “The day-trippers make up the majority of the visits at the outlets and other malls, of course. However, because we have the outlets, we are able to attract overnight visitors, including many groups.”
“We market to groups and conventions to come to Hagerstown, and having the outlets helps add value to their experience, and often inks the deal,” Riford said.
The convention and visitors bureau has advertising that touts a Shop and Stay opportunity, a package that includes hotels and a shopping gift card, he said.
The action plan also mentions countryside touring, which would involve developing a network of small towns, inns, national and state parks, and agricultural attractions.
Riford said the bureau already markets the county as a place to tour and enjoy its five national and eight state parks, and more than 30 museums and historic sites, along with hiking, biking, canoeing and other recreational activities, he said.
Although September was the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, hotel occupancy was higher in October, something Riford attributed to fall foliage touring.
The report also calls for expanding the commercial and recreational use of Woodmont Lodge near Hancock.
The rustic lodge has hosted six presidents and other luminaries, including Babe Ruth. Today, it is shared by the Izaak Walton League and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, an arrangement that appears to limit use by the general public.