County's support of festival criticized Commissioner, senator object to government sponsoring wine event

November 10, 1997|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

The leader of Carroll County's General Assembly delegation and the county's senior commissioner say Carroll government should stop sponsoring its popular and profitable Maryland Wine Festival -- a move that would likely end it.

State Sen. Larry E. Haines and County Commissioner Donald I. Dell -- neither of whom has attended the wine festival -- say their objection is not to the festival, but to the fact that alcohol is served at a government-sponsored event on government property.

"It's not the government's role to promote the sale of alcoholic beverages," said Haines, a Westminster Republican. "It is government's role to regulate the sale of alcohol."

Fellow Republican Dell agrees, saying he would vote to end county sponsorship of the Maryland Wine Festival -- believed to be the oldest in the state -- if one of the other two commissioners would support such a measure.

Should that happen, Haines would sponsor a bill in the General Assembly to repeal the licensing of the wine festival. "But I wouldn't do that without the support of the local government -- 100 percent support from two commissioners," he said.

For festival supporters, such a move is unthinkable. Begun in 1984, the festival is Carroll's premier tourist attraction, drawing about 25,000 to Carroll County Farm Museum for two days each fall.

The county nets $50,000 to $90,000 for its sponsorship of the festival -- and Westminster-area restaurants and motels take in thousands more.

Harry Colson, president of the Carroll County Tourism Council, said the that festival not only does a great job of pulling

in tourists, but that "showing off the farm museum really does portray family values."

Dell, serving his second term as a commissioner, is not convinced the Carroll festival is the tourist boon supporters say it is.

"I don't hear anyone saying, 'Bring on the wine festival! Bring on the hordes!' " he said. "It's a nice party, people enjoy it and it generates about $75,000 for the county -- but I have a concern when I go to drug-free schools. It takes quite a bit of nerve to have a booze party sponsored by county government."

If instead of wine the county sought to sponsor a tobacco festival that allowed people to taste brands of cigarettes, cigars, snuff and pipe tobacco, said Haines, "it would never happen" because of the health risk. "Alcohol is a great health risk," too, he said.

Maryland State Police are assigned to monitor the festival and bring a Breathalyzer, county Liquor Board Chairman Romeo Valianti told Dell and Haines at a recent breakfast meeting.

County Parks and Recreation Director Richard J. Soisson, whose department is responsible for the festival, said state police provide crowd control. "No incidents, no accidents -- nothing" adverse has happened in the 13-year history of the wine festival, Soisson said. The Breathalyzer is "a volunteer thing" to give people a demonstration of law enforcement equipment they might have heard about but never experienced, he said.

The festival "is good for Carroll County," Soisson said. "It helps economic development and tourism, and it helps generate revenue to operate the farm museum. It attracts a large number of people from other counties and states. Lots of motels and bed-and-breakfasts are booked that weekend."

The fame of the festival is such that it is listed among the American Bus Association's top 100 tour events -- an honor shared by only one other state event, the Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival in Annapolis.

Tourism Council President Colson said the farm museum is such a positive advertisement for the county that "it would be a shame if [the festival were] moved from there." And if it were to be moved, the question is where, he said, because few if any places are large enough to hold the festival. None offers the same aesthetic value as the farm museum, he said.

If the festival were not so valuable, Baltimore and Howard counties wouldn't have followed with their wine festivals, Colson said. "If someone imitates you, that's the biggest form of compliment you can have. They see that we have a good program going."

The long-held objections Dell and Haines have about county sponsorship of the wine festival surfaced when Valianti, the liquor board chairman, complained to them about the arrangement wineries have at the festival.

Every other vendor has to pay the county a portion of its gross -- 10 percent for nonprofit groups and 15 percent for profit-making groups, Valianti said. Wineries, on the other hand, are paid to participate and receive 40 percent of the county's gross, Valianti said.

"That's not right," said Haines, shaking his head.

Haines said it is a "disturbing factor" that adults attending the festival are given tickets that will allow each of them to receive 10 1-ounce samples of wine.

Although the amounts are minimal -- slightly more than half a pint altogether -- some nondrinkers give their tickets away, Haines said. "A woman told me the other day that she gives her 10 tickets to her husband," he said.

Pub Date: 11/10/97

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