New plates are a match for detailed-oriented drivers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Toyson Burruss will tell you it's the details on a car that count. The polished trim, the right paint, the decorative touches ... even the license plates. Until recently, he didn't bother much about that last little item.

Then, last August, Maryland issued its vibrant new orange and yellow vehicle tag.

Never mind that it bears the image of a barn and silo and proclaims "Our Farms - Our Future."

Nothing against farming - Burruss' grandparents were farmers - but that wasn't what drew him to the plates, says the 52-year-old Parkville resident born in Washington, raised in Baltimore and owner of a downtown auto detailing company.

"It was the color scheme," he explains. "I was tired of the black and white." What about the tranquil blue and green Chesapeake Bay plate with its graceful heron? He snickers. Not exactly right for his white Ford Econoline van or his gold Lincoln Town Car. Not his style.

It's been five months since the state introduced the flashy new tag amid a display of hay bales and fresh vegetables. And since then, it's become hot in the unlikeliest places.

Sales have been strong in the paved-over neighborhoods of downtown Baltimore, the shopping center-lined thoroughfares of Anne Arundel County, the congested Washington suburb of Gaithersburg and, of all places, Essex.

While 10 percent of Baltimore City motorists have purchased the tags, the Motor Vehicle Administration is getting only about half that response in the farmland areas of Carroll and Worcester counties.

Few imagined the tags would appeal to someone like Antoinette Shipley, a 28-year-old city correctional officer who grew up in Baltimore and has set foot on a farm precisely once.

She was among the first to lay out the extra $20 to display the plates on her 2001 dark red Toyota Camry last fall.

"They were just interesting, and I liked the color," said Shipley. "It matched my car." As an afterthought, she added: "It was a good cause with the drought."

While the tag's popularity doesn't rival the bay plate's launch 10 years ago, it nevertheless is selling four times faster than expected, with some of the heaviest sales in urban areas.

"The African-American community has been a big supporter of the tags, but I don't have any real evidence why it's selling," said Steven Connelly, former head of Maryland Agricultural Education Foundation and the person who floated the idea for the new plate. The foundation receives $10 from the sale of each tag.

"My real hope would be that they support agriculture. But I don't know."

Gail Moran was among the majority who expected the plate to find its audience in Maryland's hinterlands.

"That may have been my naivete about why people buy plates," said Moran, the MVA's legislative coordinator. "They may have other motives - it's new, it's different, it's pretty, bright and colorful." Whatever the reasons, she said, "We're just thrilled with the outpouring of interest in this plate."

The MVA had expected 10,000 of the plates to sell the first year. Already more than twice that number have sold. The broader appeal is just what Laurie Adelhardt was hoping for when she designed the plate.

After experimenting with farm scenes set against lush green fields and images of cornucopias, she and the design committee latched onto the sunset colors.

"It's something so unique - there really aren't any other license plates with that look," said Adelhardt, former executive director of the Maryland Agriculture Commission and now head of the Owl Creek Consulting design firm in Berlin. "We wanted to attract people who were ready for a change."

Hungry might be a better term.

Outside of the standard black and white plate, possibly among the most boring in the nation, the state sells just two specialized plates, a modest offering compared to the options elsewhere.

In Tennessee, for instance, drivers may choose from more than 70 tag designs bearing images of farms and parks and mountains and college mascots, a Tennessee walking horse and a cat and dog hugging, all of which benefit one interest group or another.

Similar options exist in California, Texas, Florida, Virginia, Wisconsin and other states.

It's not that legislators in Maryland haven't tried. Nearly every year, they lobby for some new style of plate to raise funds for a special interest. Last year, they considered one touting bicycling and another advocating preschool education. Both were voted down. This year, they're considering a "patriot" plate to benefit victims of terrorism.

Somehow, restraint has prevailed. Probably because it's the law. By statute, Maryland may offer only two commemorative plates (one is the Chesapeake Bay plate), and one specialized plate (the agriculture plate.)

"We're only a state of 4 million vehicles," said Moran, of the MVA. "Our concern is that there not be too many. We have to manufacture all of these plates."

But Del. Wheeler Baker, a Cecil County Democrat who co-sponsored the bill for the new plate, said the timing was simply right for the farm plate in the wake of concerns about nutrient runoff and pollution.

"People had farms and agriculture on their radar screens," Baker said. "I think they wanted to do something to help promote the education, because if the children don't know how important it is, farms will vanish."

Of the plate's success, he added: "I'm ecstatic. There must have been a lot of pent-up demand out there."

Considering how rarely a new license plate goes into circulation here, that demand might have been predictable. Still, many of those behind the agriculture plate expected it might be a sleeper.

In farming circles, they couldn't be more delighted to have been wrong.

The tag is providing a windfall for the 13-year-old Agricultural Education Foundation, which promotes the importance of agriculture in daily life through workshops in classrooms, mobile science labs and other programs.

"People take for granted the three meals every day, the clothes they wear, the paper they write on, the plastics in their car," Connelly said. "Agriculture is not just a gallon of milk from the grocery store."

Up to now the group's $400,000 annual operating budget came mostly from state horse-racing revenues and individual and corporate contributions. With the success of the new license plate, the foundation's revenues could double.

"We thought we would do very well in the rural agriculture communities - that was our best-laid plan," said Connelly, now executive director of the Farm Service Agency of Maryland. "But with the latest figures - this is a big deal."

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