Howard County doesn't have the sailing tradition of Annapolis, the boardwalk of Ocean City or the storied battlefields of Gettysburg. But it does have a prime spot between two big cities, a historic downtown, miles of mountain biking trails and plenty of money to lure tourists.
Over the past year, county leaders have dramatically increased spending to promote Howard as a convenient destination between Baltimore and Washington, seeking a regional niche to help draw visitors from around the Mid-Atlantic. The county's welcome center has moved out of a basement location, and a new website suggests that visitors escape from urban sightseeing with golf at Turf Valley Resort, biking at Patapsco Valley State Park or a leisurely stroll along Ellicott City's quaint Main Street.
But the county may not have such an easy time redefining itself for the many people who know it only through signs along the highway, or as a bedroom community for two big cities.
Baltimore and Washington boast plenty of their own attractions, said Sandy Hillman, who headed tourism efforts in Baltimore under Mayor William Donald Schaefer. She said Howard County can easily become an afterthought for which many don't have the time.
"It's not an obvious destination," she said. "They will have to focus in on their assets." An increase in the local hotel room tax helped lift the tourism budget from just over $400,000 in previous years to more than $800,000 this year, but that's still well shy of Anne Arundel's annual tourism budget of $1.5 million.
Rachelina Bonacci, executive director of Howard County Tourism & Promotion, said Howard is trying to capitalize on big tourist events held in nearby Baltimore and Washington.
Columbia hosted its own cherry blossom festival during Washington's celebration, for instance, and the county's hot air balloon event coincides with the Preakness.
"Visitors don't know boundaries," said Sam Rogers, chief marketing officer of the Baltimore Area Convention & Visitors Association. Instead, he said it's important to focus on tourists' interests, which means regional collaboration.
"We work very closely with the B&O Museum and work to promote their station in Ellicott City," he said. "If you're a railroad buff, your next stop is Ellicott City or vice versa."
Margot A. Amelia, executive director of the Maryland Office of Tourism, said her office tries to "highlight things that knit the state together," such as the Chesapeake Bay or Civil War trails. Howard has joined in on such collaborations.
"Howard County has really learned they have to be a part of a broader regional approach," she said. But she added, the county is not a hard sell once visitors become aware of what it has to offer.
"They have so much green space and quality of life that is recognized nationally," she said. "Ellicott City is on my short list of where I take out-of-town travelers."
She said Howard's state-of-the-art recreational facilities could also help it to draw youth sports visitors, such as soccer and lacrosse tournaments. While Troy Park Tennis Center, a planned 8,000-seat tennis stadium in Elkridge, has stalled due to a lack of funds, the county recently celebrated the opening of Blandair Park in Columbia, which has three synthetic-turf multipurpose fields equipped with lights and bleachers.
"Youth sports is a big market," she said, which has held up even as leisure travel is decreased with the slow economy.
Another project on the horizon is building up a local film office, which will work to promote the county as a destination for film producers, Bonacci said. Already, several notable TV shows, including "The Wire" and "VEEP," filmed scenes on soundstages inside county warehouses.
One of Howard's best-known historic sites — Doughoregan Manor, the home of Charles Carroll, who signed the Declaration of Independence — remains closed to tourists and locals alike.
While Bonacci said she'd love to see it available to visitors, the county does not promote it out of respect for Carroll's famously private descendants, who still own it.
"It's a significant historical site. It's our Monticello," she said.
A large portion of the tourism budget increase has been used to hire additional staff to help market the county at conventions and attract large groups. The tourism office also launched a new website in December, describing Howard as, "Where Maryland Comes Together," and is working to improve its mobile and social media presence. The county also opened a new visitor center in Ellicott City to showcase other destinations around the county.
Even Anne Arundel, which has an annual tourism budget of $1.5 million, must work to market itself to rake in visitor dollars.
"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."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun