OCEAN CITY -- Pumped up by the naming of a new state committee to champion tourism, Maryland officials are hoping they can throw off their Rodney Dangerfield complex and get some respect -- and an increase in funding.
"This is the greatest opportunity before us, but it is also the greatest challenge," R. Dean Kenderdine, assistant secretary for the Department of Economic and Employment Development and head of the state's tourism effort, told about 250 people in travel-related businesses at the Governor's Conference on Tourism.
The conference, which began here Saturday, comes to an end today.
In a keynote speech Sunday, Mr. Kenderdine said the new committee presented a chance to make state funding for tourism promotion "competitive and consistent." But he also said business must put pressure on the General Assembly.
"Be absolutely relentless in your determination to make tourism a No. 1 industry," Mr. Kenderdine urged.
Tourism officials have long complained that Maryland's promotional budget is woefully outgunned by neighboring states.
The committee, which was mandated by the legislature, is charged with coming up with a long-term funding and promotion strategy for an industry that pumps $4.6 billion into the Maryland economy annually.
However, a key legislator threw cold water on the prospects that the legislature would approve more than the nearly $5 million now budgeted for tourism, saying the state is still strapped for cash.
"The way the budget crunch is in Maryland, the budget is close to where we are going to be," said state Sen. William H. Amoss, D-Hartford and Cecil Counties.
Mr. Amoss, chairman of the subcommittee that deals with tourism, was also doubtful that a dedicated stream of revenue, such as a portion of the sales or hotel tax, could be designated for tourism promotion.
"We just couldn't afford to do it," he said. "I don't think that would be fiscally possible or sound."
While the neighboring states of Virginia and Pennsylvania spend $4 to $6 million a year on advertising, Maryland's advertising budget is about $1 million, not enough to include television advertising.
But despite Senator Amoss' comments, industry officials were still optimistic that they would be able to convince state legislators that spending more on tourism will bring in more tax dollars.
"The committee is certainly going to lend credibility to our marketing plan," said Mary Jo McCulloch, executive director of the Maryland Tourism Council, Inc., a trade group of tourism-related businesses.
"We understand the state is in somewhat of a financial crunch," she said. "But we have to have stable funding for a marketing plan."
Nicholas Brown, the vice chairman of the new committee and the executive director of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, expects proposals to call for tax revenues that will be generated by increased tourism activity, rather than from existing tax money.
"We're promising to bring back more money to the state than we are asking for," he said.
George E. Williams, director of the state's Office of Tourism, said options open to the committee are to keep the present system, tax the industry, create a private-public partnership system to provide more funds, or develop another source of money by the state selling goods and services to the tourist business.
The committee will continue to exist as an oversight body after it completes its report in January. "We are merging the private and public sectors at the administrative level," Mr. Williams said.
Including Mr. Brown, the committee will have 15 members.
The chairman, who will be the 15th member, has not been appointed.