A convention center would help Harford's tourism, and pursuing a "room tax" should also be on the county's agenda, a consultant from Chicago said last week.
Charles Johnson, president of C.H. Johnson Consulting, a real estate and hospitality consulting firm in Chicago, spoke at last Wednesday's meeting of the Economic Development Advisory Board, commonly referred to as EDAB, about strategies the county can take to be more enticing for visitors, and what its strengths and weaknesses are when it comes to tourism.
"This is the beginning of a new chapter," Johnson said. "We understand the markets [in smaller communities]."
About $300 million is spent annually by visitors in Harford County and, according to the Harford County Office of Tourism, the industry grew 9 percent in fiscal year 2011. Ripken Stadium is the largest attraction for visitors.
The consulting firm looked at lodging trends in the country and the sports market to see where Harford fit in, and what would be most beneficial for the county.
When the hot topic of the widely-debated hotel and motel tax came up, Johnson said the county should pursue passing that legislation at the state level as it would give money for marketing, as well as a capital budget.
Harford is the only county in the state that does not have a room tax.
Such a tax fell through last year when it was tied to tax credits for Presbyterian Home's continuing care retirement community, which were rejected by the City of Aberdeen.
Earlier this month Sen. Barry Glassman and Del. Rick Impallaria said they didn't know of an effort to revive the tax this year.
Johnson acknowledged that Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, BRAC and Aberdeen Proving Ground, the Chesapeake Bay and access to two international airports — Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and Dulles International Airport — are Harford's biggest strengths.
Some weaknesses Johnson identified were a fractured tourism effort, no full-service hotel, a lack of fine dining and no master plan for tourism development.
He went on to say there are 34 lodging properties in the county, and there is insufficient meeting space in those 2,725 rooms.
A convention center, Johnson said, would solve this issue. Expanding meeting space in the county was one of Johnson's key recommendations to the board.
His other recommendations included increasing overnight stays, increasing the county government's per diem rate, which is $83, creating a single voice for tourism advocacy and maximizing conference/convention and sports events.
A convention center was discussed last year, with partial funding for it proposed to come from the room tax, if it ever came to be, which it hasn't
Using Ripken Stadium's draw, as well as an events center at Cedar Lane Regional Park, would be another big plus for tourism in the county.
"More marketing would be a benefit to you all," Johnson said, referring to the sports facilities. He added that while creating more meeting space is the county's largest need, enhancing the sports facilities is right behind it.
"We have a pretty good idea of what we're lacking," Economic Development Director Jim Richardson said, calling Cedar Lane a good starting point.