Striking out on Harford room tax

March 28, 1995

If the citizens of Aberdeen want to honor Cal Ripken Jr. and family with a baseball museum, more power to them. "The Streak" or not, the Orioles shortstop is an assured future Hall of Famer who has made his mark as a local boy spending his all-star career with the distinguished local ballclub. The major league tenures of his father Cal Sr. and brother Billy add to the family's baseball legacy.

Whether it is premature to establish such an attraction -- no other active player has a museum, although plenty have restaurants filled with memorabilia -- we leave to the judgment of others.

Where we do have a problem is with Aberdeen officials' insistence that Harford County's lodging businesses fund the municipal project through a proposed hotel room tax. Any county room tax should promote Harford tourism, not finance the latest municipal whim.

It's hard to predict whether a homey Ripken museum would attract non-local crowds of any size. Baseball buffs may give it a quick run-through before heading to more bountiful attractions elsewhere in the metro region. Its economic impact, measured in overnight lodging, meals and services, would seem minimal. The project may be important for civic pride, but it doesn't warrant imposing a countywide room tax.

Aberdeen failed for years to get legislative approval for a city room tax. The majority of Harford's hotel rooms are in Aberdeen and the city wants a bigger share of the action. This year, to build broader support, the city backed a countywide tax. But Aberdeen wants the lion's share of revenues for its own designs, specifically the Ripken museum.

Harford tourism certainly needs promotion. Existing attractions that have proven their ability to draw numbers of visitors need to be refurbished, expanded and promoted. Festivals and such could use more elaboration and promotion.

While municipalities should get a portion of the tax revenues, to use for in-town projects, they shouldn't be the primary direct beneficiaries. Important tourist sites are located outside of town limits; rural Ladew Topiary Gardens is a premier admissions-fee tourism magnet in Harford.

The room tax must be modest and purposeful. Much of Harford's overnight business now is not from tourism but from government travelers, on fixed allowances, to Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Such a county room tax, used to promote general tourism with small allocations to municipalities, would be a home run. A Harford room tax to fund Aberdeen's treasury is a strikeout.

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