"We have it all," said Connie Del Signore, president of the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Conference & Visitors Bureau. "Annapolis is such an easy sell but it costs money to get in front of people."

Joe Barbera, former president of Howard's tourism board, said the additional funding will help tourism promoters reach a wider audience.

"We now have an opportunity to think big," he said. "People don't come to D.C. to come to Howard County but when they come, they discover it's a nice place to be."

He said it's important that Howard continues to market its successful events, such as the Wine in the Woods festival at Symphony Woods in Columbia and the county's Restaurant Week.

Such activities are opportunities to show people what else is available in the county, and encourage them to return, Bonacci said.

County officials hope that the new, $525,000 visitor center will allow them to play on one of Howard's strengths — historic Ellicott City — to expand tourist perceptions of the area. Barbera, who owns Aida Bistro & Wine Bar in Columbia, said the visibility of the new visitor center is crucial, likening it to the move of his own restaurant to a more prominent location on Gateway Drive.

The old tourist center was not as welcoming; it was hidden in the basement of the old Main Street Post Office. It was seen more as a bathroom stop, said Pete Mangione, general manager of Turf Valley Resort, who supported the hotel tax increase amid objections from other hotel owners.

In the recent renovation, the visitor center moved up to the main floor of the same building after the Post Office closed.

"Downtown Ellicott City is a pretty popular place but [visitors couldn't] see what else we have," Mangione said, referring to the old visitor center. The new, more prominent location "will expose more that the county has to offer."'

On a recent weekday, about an hour to close, the visitor center was mostly empty. One resident came to pick up brochures to use in a teaching exercise for her foreign language class and another woman stopped by with a brown package, only to learn the old post office had closed two years ago.

Officials say visits have increased overall since the renovations, though some people may just be stopping by to check out the new location.

"There's a definite difference [with] a visitor center that's in the middle of a destination," said Amelia, of the state tourism office. She worked for the city's tourism office when the visitor center at the Inner Harbor was opened.

Sitting near the entrance at Turf Valley, overlooking the golf course, Bonacci, after rattling off a list of attractions, said, "We sell what we have here in our own backyard. … Why a lot of folks choose to live here. We're a very cool destination."

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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