Tourism and building fuel a revenue boost in Garrett

December 24, 2007|By Kate Prahlad | Kate Prahlad,Capital News Service

When Garrett County Chamber of Commerce President Charlie Ross sees the spike in sales taxes the county has sent to the state over the last five years, he does not see money going out of the county.

He sees money coming in.

"You're seeing the money [that] people from outside Garrett County spent here," Ross said. "By and large, the figures on tourism have grown generally between 5 and 10 percent every year for the last five years."

Garrett County saw some of the highest growth in sales taxes per person between 2001 and 2006, while having some of the lowest population growth during the same period.

Like other small counties in similar circumstances, Garrett officials credit development and a booming tourist industry for the 37.2 percent uptick in tax collections, despite a very small growth in population: Between 2001 and 2006, the county grew by 0.2 percent, or 45 people.

In 2001, Garrett County collected about $370.35 in sales tax per resident. By 2006, that number was $508.14, an increase of 37.2 percent, according to figures from the Maryland comptroller's office.

When asked about taxes and tourism, county officials invariably begin by reciting Garrett's attributes: The state's westernmost county, nicknamed "Mountaintop Playground," boasts the highest elevation and the largest inland body of water in the state, they say.

While Deep Creek Lake attracts the most tourists, "We always say: Come to see that, do other things," Ross said.

Those other things include shopping, which has spurred retail growth.

Ross said a Chamber of Commerce shop that features locally made items, such as honey and candy, saw gross sales rise more than 20 percent between November 2006 and November 2007.

The arrival of a Wal-Mart in Oakland also spurred sales-tax growth.

"No doubt that Wal-Mart has a role in that, but there's also been significant growth in retail and commercial development," said Jim Hinebaugh, the county's economic development director.

Ross said the Wal-Mart attracts business "from Pennsylvania, other parts of Maryland and West Virginia."

The county hopes to further improve the tourism business with a marketing effort designed to bring people in during the off-seasons.

"We get terrific traffic in the summer, when people come to Deep Creek Lake, and then people come for the mountains to Wisp Ski Resort in the winter," Ross said. "We wanted to work on letting people know that spring and fall are wonderful here, too."

Hinebaugh said visitors to the county often want to stay and build homes. He listed "significant growth in vacation and recreation homes around Deep Creek Lake" as another factor in the sales tax spurt.

The county's assessable real estate tax base tripled between 2000 and 2005, Hinebaugh said, heavily driven by "new residential construction and property value appreciation in the Deep Creek Lake area." Most of the homes were custom-built, resulting in larger square footage and declared value totals for the county.

More home building also means more sales taxes on contractors' services, lumber and building and construction equipment.

"The construction industry has been robust for five years," Ross said. "It's not in the doldrums like real estate. ... We pay a sales tax on a lot of the materials."

Building permits are "down, but still very, very strong," he said.

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