Harford's Glassman says tourism grant program fueled by hotel tax is working well

The county is calling for applications for the fiscal 2018 round of tourism grants

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman says he believes the competitive tourism grant system he established two years ago is working well and provides sufficient accountability for use of revenue from the 6 percent lodging tax that funds the program.

About $2.8 million has been awarded over the past two years to local non-profits to boost tourism, including to the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum, the Historical Society of Harford County, the Liriodendron Foundation and the Aberdeen Proving Ground Centennial Association. According to the county, $1.5 million in grants were awarded to 31 non-profits in the 2016-17 fiscal year.

Asked about the program during a discussion about his first two years in office with editors and news staff from The Aegis, Glassman said the grant program has been a "tremendous help to many of our non-profits that almost died off" in the recession, promoting cultural arts and local museums.

"It's one of the best things we've done," he said.

On Monday, the county executive's office announced the start of the applications for grants that will distributed during the 2017-18 fiscal year beginning July 1.

According to the announcement, "the funding program aids cultural, historical, museum, eco-tourism and sports-tourism activities, with revenue generated by the county's hotel lodging fee."

Funding application workshops are planned for Feb. 22 and March 6. The application submission deadline is April 14.

Applications for the grants are screened by a subcommittee of the county Economic Development Advisory Board and approved by the full board and the County Council, Glassman said.

Each organization is audited and, Glassman noted, there is a performance component so, even though several organizations have received grants in succeeding years, there are no guarantees from one year to the next.

"I feel it's a pretty good process," he said.

Shortly after taking office in December 2014, Glassman, with County Council concurrence, enacted the first hotel tax in the county's history. Harford was one of the last counties in the state to impose such a tax. The new tax took effect in March 2015.

The tax legislation also allows the municipalities of Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace to receive 50 percent of the revenue from the tax collected within their borders, with no mandates on how the money can be used.

By law, however, the county portion of the tax must be used strictly to promote the county's tourism industry.

In assessing that decision Monday, Glassman said he believes he was right to resist some prior calls to allow the tax revenue to be used for general government purposes when necessary.

A significant portion of the past two years' revenue, some $1 million, has gone directly to the Visit Harford non-profit Glassman's administration established to be the county's principal tourism development and promotion agency. Oversight of the quasi-public organization is still done through the economic advisory board and, ultimately, the county's executive's office, he said.

Most of the other organizational grants have been in the $30,000 to $75,000 range. Last year's round of grants also provided $250,000 for marketing agriculture and ag-tourism, which previously was funded by general fund revenue.

"The funds we received provided seed money to support a comprehensive outreach and fundraising program for APG's 100th anniversary," Barney Michel, president of the Aberdeen Proving Ground Centennial Committee, said in a statement released by Glassman's administration.

"The funding also helped establish a broad coalition of over 30 community partners who are all working together to create a great centennial observance," the statement continued, "and also to lay the groundwork for a permanent APG Technology, Heritage and Education Center that will continue to draw visitors into our community for years to come."

All applicants for fiscal year 2018 funding are encouraged to attend one of workshops: Wednesday, Feb. 22, at noon in the County Council Chambers, 212 S. Bond St. in Bel Air or Monday, March 6, at 5:30 p.m. at the Harford County Economic Development Office at 2021 Pulaski Highway in Havre de Grace.

Applicants should review the application form, available on the county website, prior to their workshop.

Funding awards are for operating programmatic initiatives only. Eligibility is limited to 501(c)3 and 501(c)6 organizations whose programs or operations assist in the promotion of Harford County as a premier tourism destination and attract visitors from outside the county's borders, according to the county's announcement.

Applications are online at www.harfordcountymd.gov/oed by clicking on "Tourism Funding Application." Paper copies will also be available at branches of Harford County Public Library.

For more information, or to sign up for a workshop, contact Eva Hanley at 410-638-3059 or ehanley@harfordcountymd.gov.

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