Demand for MVA's bay tags makes them hot plates

June 08, 1991|By Doug Birch

For a best seller, there's not much of a plot, few characters and no detectable sex. But it's a very quick read.

Maryland's new blue-and-green Chesapeake Bay commemorative license tags, which depict a great blue heron loitering among stalks of marsh grass, has been selling about six times faster than state officials hoped.

It was supposed to take two years to peddle 100,000 of the reflectorized artworks when they first went on sale last Christmas Eve. Instead, it took four months to reach that figure. As of June 1, almost 136,000 were sold.

"We have never experienced anywhere near the sales volume that we have with this plate," said W. Marshall Rickert, administrator of the state Motor Vehicle Administration.

The reviews? Mostly good, it seems. "The reason behind them, the design and the final product are first class!" one tag buyer wrote the governor in February. "They are subtle, and yet they sing," wrote a columnist in the Washington Post.

Mr. Rickert said he has heard nothing but praise -- almost. "I had one person who complained because he thought the flamingo should have been pink," he said.

Others have suggested the great blue looks more like another familiar denizen of the bay, calling them "the mosquito tags."

Stephen Fear, a 46-year-old Social Security Administration employee from Catonsville, strolled out of the Glen Burnie MVA before he got a good look at his new bay tags.

"I think they're OK," he shrugged, adding he was more interested in environmentalism than art. "It's an easy way to make that contribution."

State officials say sales show no signs of slacking off, particularly at MVA offices in the affluent Washington suburbs and Annapolis. Figures show fewer are being sold in offices serving lower-income areas, such as Baltimore's Mondawmin office.

But Ellie Falk of the governor's Chesapeake Bay Communications Office said buyers are a diverse group. "We've seen these on all kinds of vehicles, from pickup trucks right down to yuppie Volvos," she said.

The tags, designed by Earle Palmer Brown Public Relations Inc. of Bethesda, urge smog-choked pedestrians and motorists to "Treasure the Chesapeake." And Ms. Falk said the tranquil tidewater scene helps draw attention to the bay cleanup and to "restoring and preserving marshlands."

But the state is basically in it for the money. Half the additional $20 goes to the Chesapeake Bay Trust, a non-profit state foundation that hands out small grants for environmental efforts. (The other $10 goes to pay for the higher cost of printing the color artwork, MVA officials say.)

Thomas Burden, executive director of the 6-year-old bay trust, said his office has so far received $1.3 million from the sale of the tags -- $300,000 more than the total that was expected by Dec. 31, 1992, when the tag sales program ends.

While the trust is supported by a check-off on state income tax forms and individual donations, Mr. Burden said tag sales will be the trust's biggest single revenue source in the fiscal year ending June 30.

Those sales have helped the trust hand out almost $535,000 worth of grants this year, he said. Among them were $15,600 to the Maryland Ornithological Society to help pay for publication of the "Maryland/District of Columbia Breeding Bird Atlas" and $2,721 to Magothy River Middle School and SevernRiver Junior High School for expansion of a nature trail and marshside boardwalk at the Twin Rivers School Complex.

For real tag connoisseurs, the state is offering bay plate specials.

The bay trust reserved 999 bay tags ending with the letters BAY -- as in 001 BAY. For $500, Mr. Burden offered motorists 115 "high-demand" numbers, including 001, 100, 200, 300 and others. Twenty-one people snapped up these collector's items.

Twenty-six car owners have paid $250 for the privilege of choosing a number combination for their BAY tag, as long as the number was not on the high-demand list. And 356 drivers have paid $100 for a BAY plate, and take what they can get in terms of a number. These prestige plates have so far raised about $50,000.

Despite the success of the bay tags, MVA officials aren't planning any more. There is a limited market for such tags, Mr. Rickert said, and police are concerned that different designs will make it harder to spot tag numbers.

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