If You Build It . . .

August 04, 1993

When Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft set up the precursor of the U.S. Naval Academy along the Severn River 148 years ago, his intent was to prepare naval officers. Accommodating T-shirt-buying tourists assuredly wasn't on his mind.

But when God gives you lemons, you make lemonade. When he gives you tourists? You set up a visitors' center.

The academy is about to begin work on a $4.5 million visitor facility, next to Halsey Field House. Officials realized that their existing center in Ricketts Hall -- while better than the glass counter with a few salable trinkets they used to have -- was still quite inadequate to serve an estimated 1.2 million visitors a year.

The new facility will include a campus store; a theater that will show a film about "The Yard" and its history, and also serve as a coordinating point for tour groups. Navy officials hope, too, to set up a space capsule to underscore the preponderance of astronauts who have been trained at the academy and an interactive video system so visitors can call up on a screen all the midshipmen from their hometowns, past or present. If Ross Perot or any other alumnus is uncomfortable about the expense, the Naval Academy has agreed to pay back the U.S. Treasury with the operating profits.

The center, due to open when the academy celebrates its 150th birthday in two years, isn't the only positive tourism development in Annapolis.

County and city officials are getting more serious about plans to build a conference center in the state capital. A study of seven sites being considered for the 5,000-seat facility is due Nov. 1.

Meanwhile, the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Conference and Visitors Bureau just opened its first walk-in center at 26 West Street. For years, the bureau has manned a kiosk near the City Dock, which will continue. But this new office will be more user-friendly. It will also attract visitors to the new Gotts Court garage and to shops off the beaten path on West Street. The center opened July 2 and, amazingly, recorded its 10,000th visitor three weeks later.

Annapolis will always be a major draw for the state's hospitality industry. The state tourism office says a quarter of all the people who come to Maryland visit Annapolis. The opening of these visitor centers isn't so much a case of "if you build it, they will come"; they are already coming. But these facilities are needed to better serve visitors and continue to build on a proven strength for Maryland.

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