www.baltimoresun.com/explore/harford/opinion-talk/ph-ag-edit-rest-stop-0912-20120911,0,4027328.story

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Aegis editorial reflects on renovations for the Maryland House rest stop

4:26 PM EDT, September 11, 2012

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Back in 2005, a manager at the Starbucks Coffee shop at the Maryland House Rest Stop on I-95 just south of the Aberdeen exit told an Aegis reporter that particular Starbucks was one of the busiest in the world.

It would be easy to chalk the claim up to hyperbole, exaggeration or the inexperience of a possibly not-so-worldly coffee shop manager, but anyone who has done a little research on the subject knows the claim is far from wild. Going back years before that, Marriott, the food service giant that has the restaurant contract for the Maryland House and many other rest stops across the country, also confirmed the Harford County rest stop is among the busiest. In those days, Marriott gauged the relative business of its travel stop operations by the number of soda lids consumed over time, reasoning that soda sales are a good indication of visitors. While the Chesapeake House just across the Susquehanna River between Perryville and North East was regarded as fairly ordinary, the Maryland House was off the scale in terms of business.

In recent years, the number of people stopping at the facility over the extended Thanksgiving weekend approaches the 100,000 mark, which is fairly astonishing considering Harford County's population is only roughly 250,000. While the place is particularly busy on holiday weekends, and especially Thanksgiving weekend, anyone who has visited can attest there are customers there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. It has all the hustle, albeit on a smaller scale, of a city the size of New York, Philadelphia or Washington, D.C., even though it is surrounded by woods, farmland and suburbia.

Starting this week and continuing for about a year, all of that will come to an abrupt halt.

The Maryland House, as it turns out, is worn out from all those travelers stopping for gas, food and a little break from the driving. It is to be part of a $56 million reconstruction project, which also will involve the Chesapeake House in Cecil County; the Chesapeake House, however, will remain open while the Maryland House is closed. Once the Maryland House is rebuilt and reopened in 2013, the Chesapeake House will be closing for its year-long face lift.

Though the state is paying for the multimillion dollar renovation project for the two travel plazas, it expects to more than make up the cost. When the Maryland House opens anew in 2013, new franchise eateries will be operating on-site, ranging from Pizza Hut to Phillips Seafood. Those places don't operate out of the travel plaza for free, and it is expected the state will derive $400 million in revenue through the new concessions agreement, which has a 35-year term. That translates to an average of nearly $11.5 million a year.

All in all, the public-private arrangement for the operation of the Maryland House has been a solid one for travelers, local taxpayers, corporate giants and the local people employed at the rest stop. While the break in business is cause for concern, there is every reason to believe the customers will be back when the travel plaza opens anew in 2013 because it seems to have a prime location for such operations, and that location promises to be a lot nicer.