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Harford tourism, room tax room tax advocates trek to Annapolis

BY MARISSA GALLO, mgallo@theaegis.com

2:41 PM EST, February 7, 2012

ANNAPOLIS –

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Residents, government officials and business people representing various segments of Harford County's economy filled all the seats in their legislative delegation's meeting room Friday to express their support for Harford tourism and the need to enact a hotel room tax.

The appearance of so many people from back home during the delegation's weekly meeting was not happenstance, however, as Friday had already been designated Tourism Legislative Day in Annapolis for the whole state. Even so, the local contingent made an impressive showing in the legislative corridors.

County Director of Economic Development Jim Richardson Harford County Tourism Manager Wini Roche both spoke to Harford's delegates on the importance of supporting tourism in the county and the necessity of a hotel room tax.

Harford is one of only a handful Maryland jurisdictions without a tax on hotel and motel room rentals. While some elements of the local tourism industry say they support such a levy so the money can be used to promote and market the county to prospective visitors and meetings, implementation of a Harford hotel tax has become a political football in recent years.

Tourism is a "changing environment," Richardson said. He also noted a recent success, mentioning Thursday's announcement of a JC Penney store coming to the Boulevard at Box Hill shopping center in Abingdon

Richardson also discussed points made by Charles Johnson, president of C.H. Johnson Consulting, a real estate and hospitality consulting firm in Chicago, during the January meeting of the county's Economic Development Advisory Board.

Johnson had the task of evaluating Harford County's strengths, weaknesses and potential for a booming tourism market.

The biggest point Johnson made during that meeting was how Harford was "well positioned to obtain and attract conference business," Richardson explained.

Another huge opportunity the county should take advantage of is being the hometown of Baseball Hall of Fame member Cal Ripken. Even though Ripken lives in Baltimore County, his siblings and his mother still call the county home, as does his minor league baseball team, the Aberdeen IronBirds. His other business interests are based in Aberdeen, as well.

"You can't buy that kind of place [the hometown of a sports icon]," Richardson said. He called the sports market in Harford "a market we need to capture, expand and grow," noting that tourism and economic development are closely tied and that sporting events and activities can be major tourist draws.

Roche echoed those sentiments, saying tourism is "a growth area and priority" in Harford County's advancement. She said visitors spend $300 million annually in the county and 6,000 jobs in Harford are supported by tourism, 3,500 of those directly.

Another Harford asset is Havre de Grace's Bulle Rock Golf Course, which, Roche said, is rated No. 1 in the state and in the top 10 public courses in the country, by most major golf publications.

Several business people, mainly from Havre de Grace, also spoke to the delegates.

Walter Biller, owner of Biller's Bikes in Havre de Grace, said the city and his shop have become a destination for people looking for outdoor recreation activities.

"We really feel that driver for tourism in Havre de Grace," Brigitte Peters, marketing and tourism manager for the city, said. "To maintain that competitive edge" would help the community, she continued.

The general manager of golf at Bulle Rock said he can see "five states worth" of license plates in its parking lot on any given day, showing what a regional draw their course has become.

Representatives from the Concord Point Lighthouse Museum, Aberdeen Mayor Michael Bennett, the Harford County Cultural Arts Board, the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum, Route 40 Business Association and various hotels, including Homewood Suites by Hilton, Marriott Riverside, Courtyard Marriott at Ripken Stadium and Hilton Garden Inn all stood up to ask for support in tourism marketing and a room tax to generate revenue for those marketing efforts.

"We need you as delegates to hear us and represent us," Monica Worrell said. Worrell, who worked in the lodging industry for 15 years before she became the public information officer for the county sheriff's office, said she feels so strongly about the need to better market tourism, she took the day off to attend Friday's meeting.

"With every issue we handle, we do not take it lightly," western Harford Del. Rick Impallaria, the delegation chairman, told the group. He cautioned, however, that the delegation wants "to make sure when things are done the first time they're done right."

Local bills supported

In other business during Friday's meeting, the delegates agreed to support four local bills:

HB-204 – Requires that an applicant for an alcoholic beverage license must reside in Harford County for at least one year. The current law states that the license applicant only needs to be a resident "at the time" of filing the application. The one-year requirement already exists elsewhere in the code and is the licensing standard used by the Liquor Control Board. This bill will remove the discrepancy.

HB-205 – Removes a seasonal limitation on when an annual wine festival can be held in Harford, leaving the time to the discretion of the liquor control board. Current law limits festivals to the spring and summer months and says they can't conflict with similar events in other counties.

HB-248 – Removes a requirement from the class C-3 club license that the facility have at least six tennis courts. This will open the license class to golf and other private clubs that don't have tennis facilities.

HB 214 – Allows Harford Community College to incur debt, including entering into long-term financing and lease-purchase agreements.