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On a mission to 'sell' Howard

The Baltimore Sun

The scent of printer's ink fills the minuscule lobby of Howard County Tourism Inc., where an overflowing rack of information guides greets visitors to the basement office in the old Ellicott City Post Office on Main Street.

The hot-off-the-press, "Howard County Wildlife Driving Tour" guide is making its presence known among the brochures with a pungent aroma only the staff could love.

"When the guides arrived, a staff member called me and said, 'They're here, and they smell great!'" recounts Executive Director Rachelina Bonacci with a contagious laugh. "We are so excited and so proud of this project."

Over a year in the making, the guide highlights 16 locations where birds, mammals, reptiles and insects can be seen, Bonacci said. It also charts biking and hiking paths and horseback-riding sites. It also pinpoints restrooms, picnic tables and bus routes.

Want to go frog-watching? Check out Font Hill Park in Ellicott City. Admire dragonflies and damselflies? Get out to Savage Park. Bald eagles can be seen at Brighton Dam.

The tourism office is expecting a big demand for its latest product, a collaborative effort overseen by Amanda Hof, special events and projects manager, Bonacci said. An advertisement promoting the tour guide placed recently in Audubon magazine resulted in more than 3,000 inquiries, she noted.

Another highlight came in May, when Bonacci saw people tromping along the sidewalks of Main Street with copies of The New York Times tucked under their arms.

The Times had published an article about the new popularity of knitting and mentioned the Howard County Sheep and Wool Festival at the Howard County Fairgrounds as a destination for chic women and their girlfriends who have rediscovered needlework. After the festival, tourists checked out the shops of historic Ellicott City.

"Even county residents don't realize that festival is our No. 1 event," said Bonacci. "People guess it would be Wine in the Woods or the Columbia Triathlon, but the Sheep and Wool Festival draws 55,000 people from nearly every state. It's what we're known for nationally."

This year's festival will be held May 3 and 4.

Bonacci seems to speak in exclamation points and with a sense of wonder that she gets paid for what she does.

"We are a bunch of extroverted overachievers who love to laugh and love what we do," she said of the five-member staff of the tourism office, which is a nonprofit, membership-based corporation that receives state and county grant funding. The office services 22,000 people annually and employs a dozen tour guides and another half-dozen part-time workers.

Bonacci said she will be glad when the county takes over the post office building about April 1 and the tourism office can expand its space and offerings.

"We are the third-richest county in the nation [according to the 2006 U.S. Census], and people enter our basement office and ask, 'We start here?'" she said. "It will be an absolute joy when the building is ready."

Bonacci, 38, is a first-generation American citizen and 20-year county resident. Born and raised in Manhattan, she said her Spanish mother and Italian father met in New York when they immigrated to the United States. She came to this area to attend the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 1990 and graduated with a bachelor's degree in philosophy in 1995. She stayed in the area and lives in Dorsey's Search village in Columbia.

Her extended family lives in the small town of Bonacci, in the narrowest part of "the boot," she said, referring to the Italy's distinctive shape. "It has remained untouched by tourism so far," she said. "That's they way they want it to stay."

Not surprisingly, Bonacci loves to travel. "I devote myself to my job for 50 weeks out of the year, sometimes only taking three days off in a month. But for two weeks when I'm on vacation, I don't check e-mail or talk on my cell phone. That is my time."

She and her boyfriend of 10 years are trying to visit all of the national parks, she said, adding, "They are absolutely magnificent places to see for such a nominal price."

When she is on the job, her life is a very public one, involving appearances at many high-profile events. New in 2007 was Dancing with the Dazzling Howard County Stars, which was "really fantastic," said Bonacci, who has signed up Columbia Association President Maggie J. Brown and her husband, Nesbitt, for this year's dance party. There's also the second installment of the popular Ghost Tour, which boasts a dozen new haunts and is "basically a history tour with a paranormal twist," Bonacci said.

But her favorite event is the Cherrybration, an outdoor festival marking the blossoming of the 1,350 cherry trees planted through Blossoms of Hope, an beautification and cancer fundraising project that she said she "grew from the ground up."

A celebration conceived to capitalize on the county's proximity to Washington, the Cherrybration piggybacks off the National Cherry Blossom Festival, which draws about 1 million visitors annually and makes up "the two biggest weeks in D.C. tourism," Bonacci said. The county festival is scheduled for May 3.

"We chose to plant pink Kwanzan cherry trees instead [of the Yoshino cherry] because we are a bit farther north and because they blossom for two weeks after their Washington counterparts," she said, adding that she is "gunning for 3,000 trees" to be planted in the county because that is what Washington has. "We want all those tourists who flock to D.C. to come here, too," she said.

Bonacci sought out a similar connection to Baltimore to lure city tourists to the county and found it in the Preakness. Last year was the first time that Turf Valley Resort and Conference Center in Ellicott City became a site for the Preakness Balloon Fest, featuring hot air balloons.

"We are so fortunate to be located between these two major cities," she said. "We are 'Where Maryland comes together.' We really are the best county in the state."

She emphasized that the tourism office wants to "win the hearts and souls" of county residents, too. "We want them to be tourists in their own towns," she said.

Bonacci's enthusiasm never seems to wane while her roster of tourism projects continues to expand. "I read about a literary tour in Georgia, and I've been wondering if we could do that. I created a 'to do' list when I came here, and I'm still working on it."

The only obstacle might be her staff, she said teasingly. "We held a meeting recently, and they poked fun at me with a poster reading, 'No more new ideas!'"

But Bonacci insists there is more to accomplish. "I like knowing I've made a difference. I like to stand back and say, 'Ta da! I did that.'"

Howard County Tourism Inc. is at 8267 Main St. Information: 410-313-1900, or www.visithowardcounty.com

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