In a move aimed at significantly boosting Western Maryland's tourism industry, officials in Garrett and Allegany counties are teaming up to devise a strategy to double the area's annual 1.2 million visitors, expand the tourist season and get people to stay longer.
They envision a working C&O Canal, with authentic canal boats running through Cumberland; an extended trail connecting Pittsburgh and Georgetown via Allegany County; Christmas lights linking Allegany and Garrett counties; and festivals.
"We didn't really understand who we were and what we had," said Lee Fiedler, mayor of Cumberland. "We wanted to come up with a plan for where to go."
To accomplish that goal, leaders from Allegany and Garrett counties have joined forces and hired a consulting firm with experience in running rural attractions. This month, the consultant, hired for $75,000, will present recommendations on how to boost tourism in the rural counties and then stay for a year to help implement the programs.
"We use these two counties as almost a test lab," said Cary Summers, chairman and chief executive of the hired consulting group, Adventure Legacy and Legends, of Rogersville, Mo. "What's hot in the country today, and literally in the world, is all here."
A four-person consulting team has inventoried attractions in the two counties and assessed the organizational structures. The team also has analyzed the financial mechanisms for marketing and evaluating the role of the western counties in Maryland's tourism.
Summers travels the country and the globe, helping regions identify and market their strengths. He has been impressed not only with the natural assets of the two Western Maryland counties but also with the marketing skills of some of the county residents.
"These counties have done some things that are so good," Summers said. "We want to see what happens."
Both counties are rich in adventure tourism, from mountain biking in Green Ridge State Forest in Allegany County to whitewater paddling and rafting on the Savage River in Garrett County, site of past U.S. Olympic Team trials and proposed venue for whitewater events should Washington/Baltimore win its bid for the 2012 Summer Olympiad.
Garrett County, home to Deep Creek Lake and Wisp Ski & Golf Resort, boasts of having just 11 traffic lights and being home to Maryland's highest point, Backbone Mountain, at 3,360 feet. There, in a county of 26,000 people, about 600 rental homes and townhouses bring in $9 million a year in rental income.
Allegany County, population 100,000, is best known for historical sites, including George Washington's headquarters during the French and Indian War, and Emmanuel Episcopal Church, built in 1849 atop trenches that once surrounded Fort Cumberland.
Cumberland also lays claim to being the starting point of "America's Main Street," U.S. 40, the first federally financed highway. Nearby is Rocky Gap Lodge & Golf Resort, the $53 million project in Flintstone championed by House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., and built with state aid.
Despite the joint effort, there has been controversy over such issues as a recommendation to pool marketing resources, since Garrett County has a larger tourism budget. But officials in both counties are optimistic that the effort will work.
"I don't think there are going to be any divisive components," said Jerry Geisler, chairman of the board of the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce, which budgets $520,000 for marketing.
"What's going to come out of this is a five-year game plan that both counties can agree to together. What the report will show is that there is going to be some marketing for tourism that each county will do separately and some that it makes sense to do together."
Jerry Hess, executive director of the Allegany County Convention & Visitors Bureau, said he and others are looking forward to the consultants' final draft.
"We've seen things that will work for us, events and ways of marketing," he said. "They've given us a road map."
According to Summers, one of the biggest tasks will be to develop a focus.
Although the counties have many special events, the range must expand, and many need a marketing theme, he said.
"Both counties need to add evening activities," he added. "They're both shy on that."
Summers predicts that the region will be able to achieve significant growth in three to five years.
Allegany and Garrett counties, whose 6 percent unemployment rates are nearly double the state average, have long recognized that their future is in tourism.
It's the reason for such projects as the $1 million renovation of the 1884 Oakland train station in Garrett County and the new $1.2 million Cumberland C&O Railroad Visitor Center in Canal Place in Allegany County.
Summers estimates that tourism generates $103 million in annual economic impact in Allegany County and $175 million in Garrett County. His goal would be to increase those numbers by 10 percent to 15 percent annually.