State tourism signs

An example of the new "attraction" signs the State Highway Administration wants to erect along state and local highways in Harford County in an effort to promote more tourism. (Maryland State Highway Administration / July 10, 2013)

Familiar blue and brown-and-white signs leading drivers on I-95 and other major state highways to Harford County tourist stops, historic sites or other attractions, such as golf courses, will soon be gone.

The State Highway Administration wants to implement a new system of tourism signs that it hopes will lead to more traffic stopping at interesting spots in Harford, signs that are tailored more to specific attractions, rather than groupings.

SHA officials met with five Harford County Council members in Bel Air on June 25 to explain the agency's plan to launch what was called a layered approach to the signs in Harford. County Economic Development Director Jim Richardson and county Tourism Manager Wini Roche also attended.

The plan, called the Tourist Area and Corridor (TAC) Signing Program, would organize attractions by corridors and tourism areas instead of having what SHA calls "a random selection of up to six individual attractions within 15 miles of the exit," thus encouraging people to travel to locations beyond that 15-mile radius. To do so, there would be signs along interstates, state highways and county roads.

Most of the new signs would be brown and white, although some of the individualized attraction signs have a blue background, according to a detailed overview that was handed out during the June 25 meeting.

Each corridor or area would then have more individual signs identifying specific attractions, as well as nearby parking locations in towns. The blue "attractions" signs seen at many I-95 exits that list several places on one board are being replaced.

SHA consultant Stephen Hollie pointed out one such sign, at the exit for Route 22 in Aberdeen, is an empty blue board because no attractions were willing to pay to be on it anymore. He said having an empty attractions sign is one thing the SHA is definitely trying to avoid.

The new signs are already up in 10 Maryland counties, Hollie explained. He said SHA hopes to get the entire state in line for the program within five years.

If the county council and County Executive David Craig agree to participate, the county would have to share the cost of maintaining any TAC signs along county maintained highways, according to the program overview.

The program is meant to assist the motorist in finding the attractions, Hollie said.

"When the motorist finds the attractions, the attractions benefit," Hollie said. "Currently there is no cost to the attractions that want to be included in the signs. As long as they meet the criteria, they will be provided signing."

Increased tourism demand

The program was suggested because the state has had increased demand for tourism signing and current attraction signs serve highways only, while the TAC program would accommodate larger areas of attractions and provide signing to more remote areas, as well as improved legibility.

The initial implementation, design and construction are all covered by SHA and the Federal Highway Administration, Hollie said.

The program would also mean any currently participating attractions would have to re-apply to be in the new program.

Hollie said identifying the attractions will be up to the individual jurisdictions. He said he plans to sit down with Harford's municipal governments to discuss the program with them.

The program is aimed primarily at recreational, cultural or historical attractions – not retail – that are open to random daily visitation and appeal to visitors outside the immediate area, according to the program overview. The attractions must also meet requirements for the number of visitors, be handicap-accessible and have a brochure and website available.

Roche pointed out some places in Harford that currently have signs, like the Steppingstone Museum in Susquehanna State Park, are only open part of the year.

Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti agreed the many historic sites in her district around Havre de Grace could face their own issues. "The people that have historically had issues with it [the sign program] are in my community," she said.

Lisanti also said she had seen some of the new signs around the state and "they are fantastic."

Hollie said the SHA is willing to work with applicants if they don't quite meet the requirements, such as encouraging them to stay open a little longer, but he said SHA does not want the whole system to lose credibility if attractions listed on the signs are not regularly open or available to visitors.

Council members mostly seemed to think the program is a good idea, and agreed to suggest to Craig that he could frame his agreement with the plan in a letter.

Council President Billy Boniface noted the council could not pass any resolution on the program until it reconvenes from its summer recess in September.

"Sounds like a great plan," he said.

Councilman Jim McMahan said he could tell the difference when the sign was put up on I-95 for Ripken Stadium. He said Aberdeen's downtown and other attractions all prospered.

"The positive benefit is overwhelming," McMahan said.

More information on the TAC program, as well as applications for attractions, are on the SHA website at http://www.roads.maryland.gov.