By Doug Donovan

The state has closed six tourist welcome centers over the past year and is scheduled to shutter two more in July as part of the O’Malley administration’s continuing effort to cut costs from Maryland’s budget.

Closing eight of the state’s 12 highway welcome centers has upset some state lawmakers and advocates for the guideposts, who say the costs of operating them are covered by tourist dollars generated when the centers’ staff direct travelers to local attractions.

With Interstate 70’s two centers closed for construction until later this year, that leaves only the two visitors facilities off of Interstate 95 near Laurel open to the public. None of those remaining four will be permanently closed and a thirteenth center, located in the Maryland State House, was transferred to the state archives budget, according to a spokeswoman with the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development.

Closing the eight centers will save about $750,000 and eliminate seven full time employees and 20 part time staffers at the centers, said Karen Glenn Hood, the spokeswoman.

Kiosks with information pamphlets on area attractions will continue to be offered at the sites, she said.
“Unfortunately, because of the budget situation, we’ve had to close these centers,” Glenn Hood said.

Del. Paul Stull, a Frederick County Republican, said he was surprised when the state closed the Mason Dixon Discovery Center in November, just three years after the Emmitsburg facility completed a $5 million rehabilitation.

“It seems like a waste to me,” Stull said. “It’s a beautiful $5 million facility. It seems a shame to let it sit there and deteriorate. I, for one, am going to do everything I can to get it back open.”

Lucia Simmons, director of marketing for Linganore Winecellars-Berrywine Plantations in Mt. Airy, said the welcome centers provided critical promotional outlets for small companies that can not afford other advertising.

“We are a larger company so we can spend money on advertising, but what happens to the smaller companies, the antique stores, that don’t have a lot of money?” Simmons said. “This was their way to promote their companies.”

Welcome center staff were well educated on their respective regions. They could not only point visitors to interesting local tourist attractions, but would help to make hotel or restaurant reservations right from their desks, she said.

“They have the staff selling the state, encouraging people to stay in Maryland,” Simmons said. “They help us get the sale. I’m devastated that the state would consider closing any of the centers. Their staff is fantastic.”

Del. John F. Wood Jr., a Democrat representing Charles and St. Mary’s counties, said each region had different information to promote at their respective welcome centers. The Bay Country Rest Area’s welcome center on Route 301 in Centerville is crucial in convincing people driving up from Virginia to visit some of the Maryland’s most spectacular sites.

“How many people would know where St. Clements Island is or St. Mary’s City or Calvert Cliffs? If you didn’t have these visitor centers, they would never visit,” Wood said. “There are thousands of people who stop there every week to get information. I think they should stay open.”

Brenda Beaudet managed the Bay Country Rest Area center for 13 years. In addition to helping steer visitors to local businesses, Beaudet said the facilities also promoted the state’s tourist strategy, like encouraging travelers to visit Civil War trails.

“The centers were instrumental in bringing travel dollars into the state,” Beaudet said. “Travelers coming into the centers were directed to where in Maryland they could have their travel needs met, which in turn added to the state’s income. The state has more or less shot itself in the foot by closing the centers.”

Glenn Hood said the state expects that some counties, like Frederick, will take on the job of providing tourist information at their own centers, even though most are not conveniently located right off the highways.

Stull, the Frederick County delegate, said he wants the state and counties to work together to establish public-private partnerships that could spread out the nearly $100,000 cost of operating the facilities.

“I’d like to get it open by this summer,” he said. “I’m hoping something will take place.”