"This program gets them off the towpath and into the towns and spending money," Thomas B. Riford, president and chief executive officer of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said at Friday's official launch of the partnership at Ferry Hill, the mansion that once served as the C&O Canal National Historical Park's headquarters.
More than 4 million people visit the C&O Canal park each year, hiking or bicycling past communities from Point of Rocks to Cumberland. The members of the Canal Towns Partnership — including Brunswick, Sharpsburg, Williamsport, Hancock and Oldtown in Maryland and Harpers Ferry and Shepherdstown in West Virginia — joined together in 2009 to find ways to get those visitors off the towpath and into the towns.
"If we can get people off the towpath and into the towns, from what the economic people tell me, the benefits are exponential," park Superintendent Kevin Brandt said.
The estimated economic impact of the park is more than $100 million per year from people stopping to buy gas or food or other commerce in the canal towns, he said.
Do not expect to see hotels or other commercial businesses starting up in the park, Brandt said, but that kind of development could occur in the canal towns, he said.
"We love visitors in Washington County. We love visitors in Allegany County and, as much as it pains me, we love visitors in Frederick County," Riford joked at the event. Visitors to West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle also are welcome, he said.
"We like people to come here and spend money and leave, but we want them to leave with wonderful memories," said Riford, who noted that 43 percent of the canal's 184 1/2 miles run through Washington County.
The project was modeled in part on the Trail Towns Program that links communities in promoting commerce along the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage between Pittsburgh and Cumberland, said Steve Paradis of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., the board treasurer for the Canal Towns Partnership.
Riford said the communities now can place interpretive signs and kiosks on park property, which allow towns to inform visitors of their histories, as well as place brochures promoting their restaurants, shops, hotels and other amenities.
"Strange things are happening in Harpers Ferry and Bolivar. One of the strange things is we're getting along wonderfully," Bolivar Mayor Robert J. Hardy said while standing beside Harpers Ferry Mayor Joe Anderson. He said the benefits of the goodwill between the towns and the canal visitors is paying off for Bolivar, with visitors filling the streets.
"The Potomac River is a political barrier ... It is not an economic barrier or a social barrier," said Del. John Doyle, D-Jefferson, one of several officials from across the river in West Virginia. The Canal Towns initiative a way to look at the river as something that binds the communities together, rather than separating them.
Washington County Commissioner Jeff Cline recalled a discussion some years back with Williamsport Mayor James G. McCleaf II about how the canal "was once part of our future" when it was being built in the early 19th century. Now, the canal can be part of the county's future again, he said.