Destination: Baltimore County?

July 30, 1992

As a tourist attraction, Baltimore County hardly ranks with southern California, central Florida or even downtown Baltimore. Still, the county government could be missing a golden opportunity by giving short shrift to the promotion of tourism.

The tourism program launched in 1990 by then-County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen, with its "Horses, Water and Wine" theme, fell victim to the recession. Mr. Rasmussen's successor, Roger B. Hayden, was faced with the necessity of slashing overall spending, so he closed the county's Office of Tourism and halved the $200,000 tourism budget. In a sour economy, the selling of package tours tends to tumble on a government's priority list.

Worried owners of county hotels and attractions lately have urged the Hayden administration to be more aggressive in marketing tourism. Baltimore County charges an 8 percent tax on hotel rooms, earning the county about $4 million a year. (Among Maryland's 23 other jurisdictions, only Prince George's County has a higher room surcharge, at 10 percent.) The hotel and attraction owners want the county to use more of that $4 million to publicize local tourist sites. They argue it would be money well-spent -- more tourists would boost revenues for county coffers and heighten awareness of the area among out-of-county residents and business operators who just might develop an interest in moving here.

In response, the Hayden administration has sounded a familiar call, proposing a public-private partnership to share the cost of tourism promotion. Some on the private side are lukewarm to the idea. Adding uncertainty to the situation is the status of the county's economic development commission, which handles tourism promotion and is undergoing major changes in personnel and philosophy after a recent shake-up.

Once it finds its bearings, the new commission would do well to think regional in how it pushes tourism. By all means hawk county attractions such as the Hampton National Historic Site, Boordy Vineyards, Oella Historic Mill Town and the horse farms. But also push the county hotels -- reportedly as numerous as those in Baltimore City -- as bases for regional sight-seeing. From any hotel or bed-and-breakfast in the county, locales including Annapolis, Washington, Philadelphia, Gettysburg and Lancaster County are modest drives away. Even closer is Baltimore with its many historic sites, Harborplace, the National Aquarium, Little Italy and the hottest place of sports worship in the nation, Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

With some imagination, assertiveness and money for wisely placed advertisements, Baltimore County could become . . . well, maybe not Anaheim or Orlando, but a much more desirable tourist destination than it has ever been.

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