Who owns the blue crab? HOWARD COUNTY

December 11, 1992

In historic Ellicott City and St. Michaels, Melissa Fulton ha built a nice business selling items bearing likenesses of the blue crab, the canvasback duck and the Baltimore oriole. But when it comes to her criticisms of the state's attempt to sell more souvenirs to offset tax losses, Ms. Fulton is dealing in red herrings.

The owner of two "Celebrate Maryland" shops, Ms. Fulton has been a vocal critic of a move by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The department recently mailed 134,000 catalogs of souvenirs it sells at state parks. The department used its own files of boat registrants and procured a list of recreational vehicle owners from the Motor Vehicle Administration, hoping an audience of travelers would be receptive to a sales pitch for Maryland souvenirs. The state spent $80,000 to launch the operation and hopes, of course, to get back more than that.

Ms. Fulton argues that the state should not be spending tax money to compete against souvenir shops such as hers. On her side is Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, whose district includes Ellicott City and who called the state's effort "misguided." The state seems damned if it does and damned if it doesn't. Residents don't want park hours curtailed nor tax increases; now comes opposition to the mail-order effort. The truth is the department had quietly hawked Maryland-abilia for a decade through its Maryland Magazine, which was sold to a private owner last winter.

Ms. Fulton may have a point in that the state bureaucracy isn't known for entrepreneurial know-how. And while government is trying to shed burdens through privatization, this seems a case of the state taking on business. But no one can fault park officials for seeking alternatives to tax or fee increases.

Few small retailers benefit more from government than Ms. Fulton. Her trade is built on out-of-state visitors wanting to take home a piece of Chesapeake Country, or of Marylanders wanting to show off their affections for their home state. The state spends about $5 million a year -- and Howard County another quarter-million -- to attract shoppers to showplaces such as Ellicott City.

No question, Ms. Fulton grew her operation through her own tenacity and ingenuity. But in making a stink about the state's mail-order operation, she's biting a hand that feeds her.

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