Tourism industry growing in area Visitors spend more than $103 million annually, council says

October 12, 1997|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

For Hanover, Pa., real estate agents Ellen Biesecker and Barbara Creek, a day off from work means driving 90 minutes to eat, browse and shop along historic Main Street in Ellicott City.

They were two of the estimated 2.2 million visitors to -- of all places -- Howard County, where tourism has turned into an important growth industry.

"It's wonderful here," gushed Biesecker, who with Creek had polished off a pineapple and pepperoni pizza at Sorrento's in the historic district last week. "We go in one store and we're in there for three hours. The things here are so unique. We don't have this back in our hometown."

That's just what Karen Justice loves to hear as she battles better-known destinations -- Baltimore, Annapolis and the like -- for tourism dollars.

"I feel like Cinderella before the fairy godmother has arrived," quipped Justice, executive director of Howard County Tourism Council Inc. "But people love little secrets, and they will look for them. I think we're one of those secrets."

The growth of tourism is evident in the amount of state sales tax collected from county restaurants, hotels and nightclubs -- considered the three most obvious indicators of tourism strength.

State and local figures show that during fiscal 1991, more than $7 million in state sales tax was collected. That figure grew 50 percent in the past six years, to about $10.5 million during fiscal 1997.

The tourism council estimates that 1.4 million of the 2.2 million people who tour some Howard County attractions do not live in the county.

Of the 1.4 million visitors, nearly half spend at least one night in one of the 2,187 rooms in local hotels, which reported a 90 percent average occupancy rate between May 1996 and May of this year.

The council estimates that the 1.4 million visitors spend more than $103 million annually.

Justice says one of her concerns is attracting too many people.

"We want to become popular, but not too popular," Justice said. "We want to attract people to the area, but not so many that it impacts on the quality of life of the residents here who want quiet weekends at home."

One of the county's biggest and most popular sites is the Howard County fairgrounds, which plays host to a number of events, including the annual county fair. About 450,000 people attend those events annually, but most are county residents, Justice said.

"That keeps residents at home, and their money stays at home, (( too," she said. "That's an economic benefit to all."

Likewise, shopping districts such as Ellicott City's Main Street and Historic Savage Mill enjoy a substantial amount of business from local residents. But the shops also draw from a strong clientele base outside the county.

Jay Winer, general partner of the Savage Mill Limited Partnership, which owns the Laurel attraction, credits part of the mill's success to a $100,000 advertising campaign that includes spots in area newspapers and on local television stations.

"But the thing we hear most is that people are tired of being faced with the same set of stores in a mall setting," Winer said, adding that about 500,000 people shop yearly at the 350 stores )) at Savage Mill. "There's not a lot of authenticity or uniqueness," he said of the malls.

Many shoppers on Main Street agreed, adding that they are drawn to the area's historic flavor.

"Going to school, I used to read about the 13 Colonies," said Vince Carrillo, a retired civil engineer from Santa Cruz, Calif., who took a side trip to Ellicott City while visiting his in-laws in Sykesville. "It's kind of neat to come back and see where they hung out. You don't get this on the West Coast."

Added Frank Hayes of Westminster: "Look at these stone buildings with their old fireplaces and chimneys. It all adds to the ambience of the place."

Night life also attracts visitors. Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia attracts 36,000 patrons a year with its rock, pop and country music concerts.

Another popular venue is Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia. Half of its yearly 81,000 playgoers live outside the county, according to Jean Kain Goodman, director of group sales and tour and travel for the theater.

"The attraction of Toby's is that we are an entertainment as well as a dining experience," Goodman said. "Not many places can say they do that, so people seek us."

Then there are tourists who want to spend their time -- and money -- with nature. Almost 350,000 people pet llamas, take hay pTC rides and buy freshly baked apple pies at Cider Mill Farm in Elkridge every year, said manager Cheryl Nodar.

And Patapsco Valley State Park in Ellicott City offers campsites for travelers such as Marion and Jim Denison of Seattle, who paid $10 a night at Patapsco Valley instead of $27 a night at a recreational-vehicle park in nearby Lisbon.

"Here we are sitting in the middle of a metropolitan area, and no one knows about it," said Marion Denison, a retired quality-control inspector for Boeing Co. "It is really delightful."

Henry and Georgia Deetz of Forest Grove, Ore., said they camped at Patapsco Valley because it offered a contrast to the congested suburb they call home.

"If people live in a metropolis and don't get a chance to see what their forefathers were a part of, why exist in society?" asked Henry Deetz, a retired music teacher. "We're missing out on part of our culture."

Georgia Deetz, a retired school administrator, said most of the 20 states she and her husband have traveled through do not have parks like Patapsco Valley.

"But don't tell anyone about this place," she whispered, "because this is a great secret."

Pub Date: 10/12/97

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