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Harford tourism agency is privatized; officials hope to boost county's brand identity

As Harford County officials await a much-hoped-for revenue stream from the new lodging tax, many in the local tourism industry are excited for what they say should be a bigger boost to tourism in general.

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman announced last year he would shut down the county's tourism office, part of the Office of Economic Development, instead making the non-profit Visit Harford! the county's main marketing organization.

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Tourism industry leaders think that will mean more freedom and more funding to promote county attractions like special events, sports-related venues, local businesses and wedding sites.

Effective Monday, county tourism manager Wini Roche's position was eliminated, saving the county $227,143 in expenses that included trade memberships and travel-related costs, county government spokesperson Cindy Mumby said.

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The legislation approving the hotel tax, passed earlier this month by the County Council after years of lobbying by tourism leaders and Aberdeen city officials, would let local organizations compete for tax revenue.

According to estimates by the Office of the County Auditor, the new tax will generate approximately $2.75 million in annual revenue, when the county begins collecting the tax this spring.

"The idea here is that we're looking for opportunities to put these funds to work where they can best support tourism, and that's the reason for this process," Mumby said.

Patti Parker, who has been president of Visit Harford! since its inception last spring, said her organization will be prioritized for receiving revenue from the lodging tax.

"We will be positioned as the destination marketing organization for the county and that actually makes us eligible for statewide grants," Parker said.

Parker, a tourism advisory board member with the county, said the idea of eliminating the county-run tourism office was to expand tourism marketing initiatives.

"Under the government umbrella, we are kind of more limited, because of what we can do," she said.

Visit Harford! was launched last spring by members of the tourism advisory board, Parker said.

That board, however, was constituted as a county government entity.

According to the county government's website, "the 16 member board shall represent each of the following tourism industries: six (6) representatives from the membership of the Harford County Economic Development Advisory Board's Tourism Subcommittee; three (3) representatives from the local hotelier industry; a representative nominated by the Harford County Chamber of Commerce; a representative from the local athletic or sports industry; a representative from the local food & beverage industry; a representative from the local entertainment attractions; a representative from a local museum; a representative from the local parks & recreation industry; and a representative from the Economic Development Agricultural Advisory Board."

Parker, who has worked in the hotel industry for 20 years, said the definition and possibilities for Harford tourism "has really grown."

"I think most people, when they hear the word 'tourism,' they think a cocktail in their hand at the beach," she said. "We have probably 6,000 employees in Harford County who work in a tourism-related activity and we have half a million people who come to the county just between baseball, lacrosse and soccer."

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She said the goal is for the tourism office to run more like a concierge.

"We are going to be putting into effect a booking tool so the tourism in the county will be operating a little more like a traditional [convention and visitor bureau]," she said. "We want people to come to the county, we want to open doors for them and get them where they want to go."

"I had a woman who was coming [to book] 50 rooms and about 100 people, and she wanted to go and get a crab feast, so I gave her the names of Richards Fish and Crab [in Bel Air], places like that," Parker recalled.

The visitors, however, had trouble finding good locations through county sources and instead rented a bus to drive to Phillips Seafood restaurant in Annapolis.

"All that money and all that resource just left the county," Parker said.

Parker, a volunteer, said Visit Harford! plans to eventually hire an executive director. The non-profit now has one part-time employee.

Roche, the former county tourism manager, is functioning as an interim executive director with Visit Harford! by helping transition content from the county to Visit Harford!, Parker said, explaining that Roche does not have a permanent position with the non-profit.

Monica Worrell, who spent 22 years in county tourism, including working for Hess Hotels for 16 years, said privatizing tourism services was tried before.

Worrell said former Harford County Executive Eileen Rehrmann attempted that, with Discover Harford County, in the 1990s. Under Harford County Executive David Craig, tourism was brought back under county government, but tight economic times made it hard for the county to support tourism officials, Worrell, an unsuccessful candidate for Harford County Council last year, explained.

"What it comes down to is, government can't keep up with the spending and investment in tourism, so it was important to create a private sector organization," Worrell said, noting the new lodging tax should provide a better revenue stream for tourism.

Worrell said she believes the county still needs to do a better job of telling visitors what there is to do here.

"I think some of the best avenues for tourism for the county are sports marketing and our rich, natural resources, our parks, our water, our proximity to the water, our quaint towns," Worrell said.

"Our challenge has never been that we don't have enough to market," she said. "We've never had enough money to tell the story of everything we have to offer in this community."

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