Maryland's tourism leaders will lobby legislators today

Capitol trek to seek aid for more hotels, Inner Harbor center

`Day-trippers' targeted

January 25, 2000|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

When the leaders of Maryland's tourism industry head to Annapolis today, they will lobby lawmakers to support a new visitors center for the Inner Harbor, speed downtown Baltimore hotel development and oppose "tourism taxes" earmarked for things other than promoting tourism.

"What we've found is that because of [Tourism Legislative Day], the legislators are far more aware of the impact of tourism on their local economies back home," said Mary Jo McCulloch, executive director of the Maryland Tourism Council. "I think the legislators have come to enjoy meeting with their local tourism industries to find out what's affecting them."

About 150 people are expected to attend the event at which members of the various tourism-related industries meet with legislators, an annual pilgrimage that the Maryland Tourism Council has sponsored for more than 10 years.

This year, the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association will lobby legislators for additional funding -- $1.6 million for each of the next three fiscal years -- in order to remain competitive. The city trails competing cities by millions of dollars.

Orlando, Fla., for example, has a convention and tourism budget of $23 million. Atlantic City, N.J., and Washington have budgets of only $8.5 million, but more than Baltimore's $6.9 million.

BACVA also will ask legislators to support a proposed $8 million visitors center for the west shore of the Inner Harbor. The city and state have committed $3 million.

The center recently received preliminary approval from the city's Design Advisory Panel. The center is billed as a way to increase the length of visitors' stays by educating them on what there is to do in Baltimore and by drawing them out from the Inner Harbor and into the neighborhoods.

"We take those day-trippers, and when we get them into the visitors center, you end up educating the consumer, and they realize they can't do it all in a day," said Carroll R. Armstrong, president and chief executive officer of BACVA.

Construction could begin this summer and be completed within a year.

BACVA also will ask legislators to help move the major convention hotels forward, noting that since fiscal 1997, Baltimore has lost 665,300 room nights -- about $787.6 million -- because of the lack of hotel rooms.

So far, the 31-story, 750-room Marriott Inner Harbor East is the city's only major lodging project under construction. Other proposed hotels include a 250-room Ritz-Carlton at the base of Federal Hill, a 600-room Westin Hotel on the site of the former News American building downtown, an 850-room Grand Hyatt to be built across from the Baltimore Convention Center and a 267-room Embassy Suites at 1 Light St.

The state's Office of Tourism will be seeking an additional $650,000 for initiatives including multicultural and nature tourism and sports marketing programs.

The Maryland Tourism Council will try to persuade lawmakers to oppose "tourism taxes" that are committed to any purpose other than marketing and promoting tourism, such as those being proposed in Frederick and Washington counties.

Frederick County proposes charging up to 5 percent in lodging taxes, with 3.5 percent for promoting tourism and 1.5 percent going to operate an information center, once it is built.

In Washington County, a 3 percent tax has been used to promote tourism for many years. The county now, however, wants to increase that tax by 2 percent, with 1 percent to pay for the construction of a new baseball stadium, and the other 1 percent divided evenly between funding economic development enterprises and the tourism bureau.

"We're very concerned about lodging taxes being used for anything but tourism," McCulloch said.

Maryland counties collected more than $47 million in bed taxes and more than $41 million in admissions and amusement taxes in 1998, according to the Tourism Council, she said. The counties, however, spent less than $20 million on their tourism budgets, she said.

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