Town gets in the game

Golf: Havre de Grace leaders say that playing host to the LPGA Championship will finally put their town on the national map.

Town scores hole in one

July 13, 2004|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

When ironworker and sailboat enthusiast Arnold Stackhouse moved from Pennsylvania to Havre de Grace in 1975, the waterfront town reminded him of a military post that had been deserted after World War II.

"It was a demoralized community with opportunity," Stackhouse said. "At the time, they didn't even look at the river. I used to tell them, `It's the only cornfield you've got. It's the producer for the community.'"

In the years since Stackhouse arrived and opened a sailing business on the banks of the Susquehanna River, Havre de Grace has made its waterfront its focal point. Bed-and-breakfast proprietors, antiques dealers, independent restaurateurs and even a day spa have come to town in recent years, attracting tourists with the quaint downtown's restored Victorian homes, specialty boutiques and outdoor decks with a view.

Now, the decision-makers in women's professional golf appear to have recognized Havre de Grace's potential. The LPGA Championship, one of the major tournaments on the tour, is moving in June next year to the five-star Bulle Rock Golf Club on the outskirts of the Harford County city.

"It's only the largest thing to happen to Havre de Grace in tourism," Wini Roche, Havre de Grace's tourism and marketing manager, said yesterday after learning that the deal she had heard whispered was finally official. "It's going to put us in a national spotlight and probably bring tens of thousands of people here annually."

Playing host to such a high-profile national sports event will likely add to the momentum that has been building for years in the city of about 12,000, local officials and business owners said yesterday, even as torrential rains flooded the city.


In January, the town launched a campaign to market itself as a destination for out-of-town brides and grooms looking to be married at scenic, historic, waterfront locations. Although it had not previously promoted itself as such, Havre de Grace has for years attracted hundreds of couples annually who exchanged vows at Swan Harbor Farm, the Concord Point Lighthouse and historic inns. But in the last seven months, more than 4,000 engaged couples have responded to the tourism center's new advertising and called to request information.

In May, Reader's Digest named the city, on a point where the Susquehanna meets the Chesapeake, the No. 1 largemouth bass fishing destination in the United States. Southern Living magazine declared the locale -- home to a decoy museum and annual decoy festival -- the "Duckiest Town on the Chesapeake."

And last month, work began on restoring the city's celebrated multimillion-dollar promenade, which was ripped to pieces when Tropical Storm Isabel swept through in September. The boardwalk had stretched for a third of a mile along the bay shore, drawing thousands of tourists and locals annually. The work is expected to be completed in September.

"Havre de Grace has been an up-and-coming tourist destination," said Dan Lee, owner of MacGregor's restaurant. "In the 17 years I've been here, there's been a tremendous explosion of tourist influx. ... It's about time that some big-time golf came local."

Even the most pessimistic locals had to acknowledge that the tournament might be good.

When first asked what he thought the LPGA Championship would bring to Havre de Grace, George Traband, owner of George's Place, an antiques and collectibles shop, grumbled, "Nothin'. Absolutely nothin'."

Traband explained that he thought the town "has gone to pot" in recent years, that his profits are down and that although improvements have been made to the waterfront and historic downtown district, few outsiders know of the new attractions because of insufficient advertising.

Before long, however, the Edgewood resident conceded that a nationally televised professional golf tournament might bring more people to town.

"I would hope, anyways," he said. "More people, more money. Hopefully."

Hotels, maybe

Others also hope the tournament will bring hotels to town. Without a single hotel or motel in its downtown district, Havre de Grace has only 115 overnight rooms, spread among more than a dozen small inns and bed-and-breakfasts, said Roche, the tourism manager.

Although there are national chain hotels in nearby Perryville, Aberdeen and Edgewood, Harford County has only about 2,000 overnight rooms, Roche said.

"That's what I hope the LPGA brings to Havre de Grace," she said with a chuckle. "I hope this level of event raises the confidence level of hotel developers."

For Stackhouse, 78, now owner of the Havre de Grace Seaplane Base, the tournament's move is only the latest proof that the town's future lies in the waters that lap its shores.

"Thousands of people are coming into town to look over the bay and river. It's become a river town that everyone wants to come to," he said, gazing out at the storm-tossed waters from a table at the Tidewater Grille. "A golf tournament is just going to enhance the whole atmosphere."

Pointing out that Wimbledon was once just a little town in England and few outsiders had heard of Augusta, Ga., before it became home to the Master's golf tournament, Stackhouse said, "We'll start where we can, and see what we can do with it."

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