Officials hoping to keep festival

As Renaissance event seeks new home, leaders call it economic boon to county

November 06, 2008|By Nicole Fuller | Nicole Fuller,nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

The wenches should stay. And the pirates, too. That's what Anne Arundel County officials are saying in response to news that the owners of the Maryland Renaissance Festival are looking to relocate.

Organizers of the Renaissance Festival - in its 32nd season of celebrating 16th-century English culture - recently undertook a location scouting effort across the region in order to expand their business, currently situated on 135 acres in Crownsville. The festival has seen record attendance this year, and organizers envision a larger site offering more amenities.

Jules Smith, vice president and general manager of the festival, said he has been considering a move for the past year and recently hired a consulting firm to find possible locations, though a relocation could take up to a few years.

Though Smith said he would like to stay in Anne Arundel, he said he is open to relocating, within the Washington and Baltimore metropolitan areas. Since running large advertisements in several daily papers and business journals in the area last week, Smith said he has received "over 20" inquiries from real estate agents and property owners.

"My kids go to school here," Smith said of the county. "My home's here. But in these tough economic times, the way the world is now, people move around for jobs. Our desire is to stay within the market right now, but I have to go with the property that best services our needs."

Robert L. Hannon, president of the Anne Arundel County Economic Development Corp., said he had spoken to Smith a few months ago about concerns with the current property, which he said involved lease negotiations, but ultimately backed away because "as a private business transaction, there's only so much we can do."

"We're very pleased to have the Renaissance Festival here in Anne Arundel County," Hannon said. "I'm certainly happy to sit with Jules and understand what the present issues are and see what kind of assistance we are able to provide him."

Hannon said that because the festival is a destination for many visitors, its economic impact is likely soft, and limited to gas stations and nearby restaurants. But its fiscal impact, most noted by the entertainment tax paid to the county with each ticket sold, is great, Hannon said.

"The Renaissance Festival has been a season-long attraction in the Annapolis area for a number of years," said Bob Burdon, president and CEO of the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce.

"It draws people not only from around the region, but the mid-Atlantic states. The potential of it possibly moving out of our area to find a larger location would be of concern. ...We've been a good home to them over the years, and we'd want to be home to them in the future. This is a good economic development engine for us, and we don't want to lose it. That's for sure."

The festival began in 1977 and was held for the first eight years in Howard County near the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia. Its Crownsville site consists of a 25-acre replica of a 16th-century English village and includes a jousting arena featuring swordsmen on horses, mimes, jugglers and 10 stages. Food vendors and craft merchants abound. Actors dressed as ladies and lords entertain the crowds. The festival, which runs from August to October, drew 23,000 visitors a day at its peak this year, Smith said.

According to a business profile from the county development corporation, the festival has seven full-time employees, six seasonal employees working six months of the year, and hires an additional 420 employees during the nine weeks of operation. The other 126 businesses at the festival hire an additional 700 people to staff activities, for a total of more than 1,450 paid personnel. Payroll in 2007 was $2,539,133, not including the 700 employees working for the 126 other vendors.

In 2007, the festival paid a total of $1.3 million in taxes, with $375,000 of that from the amusement tax. Among the products sold annually at the festival, cups of soda led with 247,500. Other popular products include bottles of water (167,680) and turkey legs (55,000).

"It would be devastating to us," said Connie Del Signore, president and CEO of the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Visitors Bureau. "It's a fabulous, very well attended, fun festival. I would hope that the county would do everything they could to help them find a new place."

Meanwhile, Smith said he has already scouted several locations in Anne Arundel, Calvert, Prince George's, Frederick and Howard counties. And with the recent ads, he's gotten even more leads.

"The only things we're hearing is from people who have a lot of land for sale," Smith said. "I got a call this morning from someone in North Baltimore."

He said the landowner understands his predicament. And now that's he's gotten so many properties to choose from, a decision may come sooner than later.

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