Town attempts to lure tourists Havre de Grace hoping to transform its image from sleepy to trendy

November 05, 1995|By Philip Hosmer | Philip Hosmer,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Havre de Grace has all the ingredients -- rich history, a beautiful waterfront and a prime location -- to become a major tourist destination.

Although 20 million cars whiz by on nearby Interstate 95 each year, Havre de Grace retains a sleepy, undiscovered feel, much like a small town on the Eastern Show.

But that sleepy atmosphere could change soon.

Several recent developments and projects could dramatically increase the number of tourists visiting Havre de Grace.

Last month, a world-class golf course development was proposed for the Blenheim Farm property on the outskirts of the town that eventually could draw golfers from a 480-mile radius.

A street-scape project aimed at revitalizing the historic downtown business district is in the planning stages.

And the Havre de Grace waterfront continues to develop under a unique eco-tourism concept that combines elements of the town's maritime heritage with the unspoiled natural beauty of the area.

"Havre de Grace used to be the hub of the Harford business community until 30 to 40 years ago. Then the malls came and the traffic patterns changed and Havre de Grace had to find a different niche in today's economy," Mayor Gunther Hirsch said.

"We're looking for industries that create jobs, and tourism does create jobs as well as increase business in the downtown area. I am pro-tourism, but there are quite a few citizens who look at tourism as an invasion. I envision in five years Havre de Grace will be pretty busy with a lot of people strolling through town," said Mr. Hirsch, who has lived in the town 40 years.

Bill Watson thinks Havre de Grace has the potential to become a miniature version of Annapolis some day.

"With the right combination of additional shops, restaurants, cafes and cultural attractions, Havre de Grace could attract a lot more people," said Mr. Watson, a Havre de Grace resident and volunteer member of the town's tourism commission.

He has seen apathy derail some tourism development efforts in the town, but is encouraged by the current direction Havre de Grace seems to be taking.

Mr. Watson said the developer of the golf course hopes to attract a major PGA tournament, which would bring national attention to the Havre de Grace area. Mr. Watson is also encouraged by Harford County's efforts to create a privatized tourism council, effectively doubling the budget for marketing and promotion countywide.

"Havre de Grace is the closest thing that Harford County has to a tourist destination," said Paul Gilbert, director of the county's office of economic development. "A tourist can spend the better part of a day in Havre de Grace alone."

Along the waterfront, a new, quarter-mile-long boardwalk promenade connects Tydings Park with the Concord Point Lighthouse, providing walkers and bird-watchers with an ideal vista.

Along the way, the scenic promenade passes the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum and the future site of the Maritime Museum and the Ecology Center.

There are plans to extend the waterfront walk with a brick sidewalk that would extend to the Susquehanna Lockhouse Museum on the north end of the town.

Construction of the the Maritime Museum, an $800,000 project partially funded by a state grant, is scheduled to begin in the spring and be completed by the end of next year. The museum will document the development of the upper bay region from the times of American Indian settlements through the emergence of the fishing industry to the current recreational uses of the bay.

The Ecology Center would feature a glass-enclosed exhibit space that would highlight the wildlife and vegetation found in the upper Chesapeake Bay.

A visitors' information kiosk is also planned near the promenade. The waterfront attractions would be part of an area called Heritage Park, and planners hope to have all of the elements constructed by 2000.

Since the promenade was completed in spring 1994, the attendance at the Decoy Museum has increased by several thousand and now attracts 26,000 visitors annually, said Mary Jo Moses, the museum's director. She expects the number of visitors to increase steadily as Heritage Park continues to take shape.

Tom McFalls, a consultant to the Maritime Museum, said the Havre de Grace waterfront area is one of the nation's most important natural resources.

"This is a world-class scene here," said Mr. McFalls. "You have a waterfront that has not been overdeveloped looking out at the place where the Susquehanna ends its 440-mile journey and empties into the Chesapeake Bay. In my mind, this is as important a natural historic site as Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon or the Mississippi Delta. It would be regrettable if you didn't preserve it and celebrate it."

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