More than $1.3 million in grants has been distributed to 23 non-profit groups in Harford County to plan and implement a variety of tourism-related activities, with the money coming from the new 6 percent lodging tax the county began collecting in March.
The one-year grants, which will support sporting events and historical, cultural, agricultural, heritage and eco-tourism operations in the 2016 fiscal year, were awarded competitively, according to the county government.
"I am pleased to reinvest revenue from our hotel lodging fee to advance Harford County as a tourism destination," Harford County Executive Barry Glassman said in a statement announcing the grants. "Our competitive grant process provides accountability for how funds are used. At the same time, we assist nonprofits in developing attractive tourism-related programs and activities for citizens and guests to enjoy. Indirectly, this funding will also help local shops, restaurants and other businesses that thrive when visitors come to town."
Harford is the last county in the state to implement a tax on hotel and motel room rentals. After more than two decades of political wrangling on the issue locally, the Maryland General Assembly provided the local authority to collect the tax during its 2014 session.
Glassman introduced the 6 percent levy shortly after taking office as county executive in December, and the tax was approved by the County Council in January. The tax legislation earmarked all of the revenue collected explicitly for tourism-related operations and events. The county began collecting the tax March 25.
An eight-week competitive grant application process was launched on March 2 through the Office of Economic Development, offering 501c3 and 501c6 organizations the opportunity to apply for funding, according to a county news release. Two informational workshops were offered in March and April to provide assistance in completing the application and to answer questions from interested organizations.
The county Economic Development Advisory Board was assigned the task of reviewing and recommending the tourism-related funding grant applications, designating a Tourism Activity Review Committee for this purpose. The full board then endorsed the committee's process and forwarded the recommendations to Glassman for his consideration, according to the news release.
Any remaining money not allocated by Tourism Activity Review Committee will remain designated for tourism-related activities not yet identified in FY16, according to county officials. Should the funds not be used in this fiscal year, they will roll over into FY17 for tourism-related activities and operations.
The lodging tax is expected to generate about $3.25 million gross revenue in its first year, according to an analysis performed by the Office of the County Auditor based on an estimate of approximately 3,650 hotel and motel rooms in the county and an average daily room rate of $86.85. The county's take is expected to be about $2.7 million.
The three local municipalities – Bel Air, Aberdeen and Havre de Grace – receive 50 percent of the tax collected from room rentals within their jurisdictions, with Aberdeen expected to receive approximately $433,000 and Havre de Grace $69,000, according to the earlier analysis. Bel Air does not have any overnight lodging facilities within its borders.
Aberdeen city officials have already cycled their expected share of the lodging tax revenue into the FY 2016 budget they passed earlier this week and said the money, which will be used for maintenance of the city-owned Ripken Stadium, will in turn allow them to make a slight reduction in the local property tax rate.
Tourism development for the county was recently privatized under the Glassman administration, which eliminated the tourism office in the Office of Economic Development and oversaw formation of Visit Harford! Inc., a 501c6 that serves as the county's Destination Marketing Organization in the eyes of the state.
Visit Harford! Inc. is the largest recipient of tourism related grants for FY16 at $500,000, which will assist in augmenting a comprehensive, mass media marketing program, launch a regional reservation system for sports tourism and increase operational support for the volunteer-board run organization, according to the county.
"The program and process that the Glassman administration has put in place legitimizes the idea that tourism is not only about vacations. It's a business that generates business. It is a sound investment," Economic Development Advisory Board Chairman Eric McLauchlin said in the county news release. "Through the wise distribution of these dedicated revenues, Harford County is supporting organizations and venues that substantially impact the local economy, and is at the same time holding them accountable."
Grant recipients have received a notification letter from Glassman announcing their award amount. A package from the Office of Economic Development will follow with guidelines for executing a memorandum of agreement, quarterly performance report template and procedures for receiving funding. Once those materials are fully executed, funds will be made available after July 1, when FY 2016 begins.
"As with any new process, we will be seeking feedback from applicants on how to improve on this process," Economic Development Director Karen Holt said. "These funds are a great investment in our county. They help to build Harford as a premier tourism destination and many businesses across our county benefit from both day-trippers and overnight bed stays."
Organizations receiving lodging tax grants include:
• Bel Air Downtown Alliance, $58,130, operations for Maryland BBQ Bash and Town of Bel Air Market study;
• Boys & Girls Club of Harford County, $50,000, marketing and operations for seasonal, temporary, "haunted" event development at Camp Hidden Valley;
• Center for the Arts, $50,000, support staff position to assist with revised business plan and marketing;
• Chesapeake Heritage Conservancy Inc., $25,000, staffing support and basic operating expenses for Skipjack Martha Lewis, 60th year on Chesapeake Bay;
• Concord Point Lighthouse, $17,250, fund half of a staff position and support essential website upgrades;
• Darlington Apple Festival, $35,000, expanded marketing materials, support toward trash and traffic management, addition of a cornhole tournament;
• Harford Community College Foundation, $40,000, expansion of regional marketing campaign to promote APGFCU Arena, expand multi-day events and attract out-of-county event patrons;
• Harford County Agricultural Research & Exposition Foundation Inc., $5,000, site preparation, administrative operational support to develop Ag Research and Exposition Center;
• Harford County Farm Fair, $50,000, shuttle bus and electrical services;
• Harford County Historical Society, $30,000, support overall operating costs;
• Harford Land Trust, $12,500, improved signage and PR materials;
• Havre de Grace Decoy Museum, $90,000, support for an executive director, marketing with "Canvasback" magazine and social media outreach;
• Havre de Grace Main Street, $100,000, staffing, marketing analysis and branding for downtown district in a collaborative citywide process;
• Havre de Grace Maritime Museum, $24,000, partial support for two part-time employees and general operating expenses;
• Highland Community Association, $50,000, promote cultural aspects of Northern Harford with tourism information dissemination, Highland Museum and Archives;
• Hosanna Community House Inc. (Hosanna School Museum), $25,253, support a bus tour series that showcases Harford County's social and cultural heritage from the lens of African Americans;
• Ladew Gardens, $30,000, support for general operating expenses;
• Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenway, $50,000, support for staff position, marketing and operations;
• Rockfield Manor, $63,395, marketing, catering and tech items to support and sustain Harford County Wine Festival;
• Steppingstone Museum, $20,000, FY16 operating funds to sustain and expand living museum through preservation of historic trades and folk arts;
• Susquehanna Museum of Havre de Grace Inc. at the Lock House, $25,000, for approximately 26 percent of general operating expenses;
• Susquehanna Symphony,$25,900, for rental, marketing of regional musical performance, support to commemorate 40th season;
• Visit Harford! Inc., $500,000, support for operations, advertising and promotions.
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In addition to the competitive grants, the county said $170,000 for marketing agriculture and ag-tourism, which had been funded in prior years by general fund revenue, will be funded in fiscal year 2016 from lodging tax revenue.