Tourism study released; officials push need for convention center, hotel tax

Harford County administration and tourism officials formally announced Tuesday the results of the Destination Market Study to streamline the county's tourism efforts as it struggles to get a hotel tax through the Maryland General Assembly this year.

The county needs a convention center and a way to entice people to stay multiple nights at local hotels when they come in for youth sporting events, and getting a hotel tax is the key to doing that, Donald Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said at a press conference at the Main Street county building.

"It's almost like going into a fight with one hand behind your back," Fry said, reiterating the message the county hopes to send to its delegation in Annapolis.

"The county stands at a competitive disadvantage by being the only jurisdiction in the state of Maryland that doesn't have a lodging tax," he said.

The report was submitted to the GBC by C.H. Johnson Consulting, Inc., and concluded that the county's impact on tourism comes mostly from sporting events, the leisure market and from meetings, conventions and social functions.

The latter use has led officials to promote the need for a "medium-sized" convention center, which Fry also heavily supported.

With BRAC came an influx of people, defense contractors and the need to hold specialized events related to the military, Fry said.

"These are very powerful events that are very well-attended and they are obviously perfectly suited for Harford County," he said, adding the county only has 17,000 square feet of meeting space in hotels, which "is not significant" to accommodate large meetings.

He said a medium-sized convention and visitor bureau could have a 12,000-square-foot ballroom, 8,000-square-foot meeting area and 30,000-square-foot exhibit space.

Fry compared it to larger arenas like the Baltimore Convention Center, which has 300,000 square feet and wants to expand to 600,000 square feet.

"It's a totally different concept, but it's significant in helping move the ball forward for the county," Fry said of a Harford convention center.

Jim Richardson, the county's economic development director, agreed that Harford County needs to tap into the movement of people generated by the larger, urban centers around it.

"People come to Harford County but they very often go to Baltimore [to stay]," Richardson said. "Being between Baltimore, Philadelphia and Wilmington, we felt we were in a good position in many different ways."

Fry said one of the challenges facing the county is how to put forward a "powerful, coordinated marketing effort."

County Executive David Craig also said the county needs to invest in a convention center, performing arts center, visitor center and better sports facilities just like it has invested in schools, roads and other infrastructure.

He gave a personal example of why more space is needed to hold visitors to Harford, saying he recently went to Aberdeen High School to watch a sports competition.

Craig said the room was "packed" with hundreds of parents, grandparents and relatives from as far as Delaware and the Eastern Shore, and that was just to watch 7-year-olds.

"It is something that we need to do," he said of the tourism effort, adding that tourism is a "clean industry."

"We do need to start investing," he said. "[The study] shows that we are well positioned in Harford County to expand these opportunities and diversify our base."

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