Building tourism in Harford Hotel/motel tax: Half the proposed room tax would be a good start for county effort


TOURISM IN Harford County is quite frankly of the day-trip nature, generating little overnight business. Guests in local hostelries off Interstate 95 are typically on business, many of them with government duties at Aberdeen Proving Ground. Another major group are interstate travelers who happen to break their journeys in this area.

While the county boasts several well-known Maryland attractions -- Ladew Topiary Gardens, the decoy museum at Havre de Grace and the proving ground's Ordnance Museum -- the critical mass of local sites hasn't been enough to entice the business traveler or others passing through to stay over an extra night.

To finance tourism development, a county task force has suggested a 1 percent county tax on hotel and motel rooms. But first it wants to spend $25,000 for a study to determine whether the tax will help or hurt local hostelries.

We doubt this consultant economic study will do much to advance the proposal, regardless of its outcome.

Nevertheless, a campaign to promote tourism in Harford seems a worthy effort. The same qualities that have made the county attractive for large-scale warehousing -- traversed by a major north-south interstate in the middle of the megalopolis belt -- make it a good bet to build a visitor trade.

Harford's three municipalities -- primarily Aberdeen, which has two-thirds of all county motel rooms -- would get part of the tax revenue to develop their own local promotions. Aberdeen hopes to develop a museum devoted to the Ripken family, capitalizing on the interest in Cal Ripken Jr.'s "iron man" record.

Absent firm plans for tourism at this point, the county would do well to start with a more modest 1/2 -percent tax rate, to supplement the $60,000 in county funds Harford now spends a year on tourism development. That would be less than the cost of a single pay phone call on an average Harford motel room bill -- and generate about $120,000 a year.

The County Council can approve this small room tax (authorized by a state law this year) without fear of backlash from the tax-relief lobby. Then the county administration should focus on getting a quasi-private tourism council up and running, under the guidelines proposed by the county executive's task force.

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