- The Washington Times - Monday, July 24, 2000

HAGERSTOWN, Md. Don't kill the tourists.
Local tourism boosters hope this startling message, meant to be funny, hits home in this Western Maryland city long defined by railroads, factories and state prisons.
The local culture may be clannish, but Hagerstown is changing. Surrounding farmland has given way to a huge outlet mall. A state university campus is being built downtown and a Civil War museum is planned. A new minor league baseball stadium could bring still more visitors.
Ben Hart wants them to feel welcome. Mr. Hart, executive director of the local convention and visitors bureau, said 780,000 visitors spent $150 million in Washington County in 1998, yet tourism's economic impact has gone largely unrecognized. So the bureau is urging tourist appreciation in a series of local television and radio commercials this summer.
In one TV ad, the clownish announcer tells viewers that if their first urge is to run tourists down, "you really shouldn't." He explains why, then concludes, "The next time you see a tourist, or a tourist asks for directions, go ahead, smile politely. But if one tries to marry your sister, run him down."
Mayor Robert Bruchey thinks the ad is funny: "It's supposed to shock you into awareness, I guess."
Others are puzzled.
"It actually seemed kind of silly to me," City Council member J. Wallace McClure said.
But Mr. McClure acknowledges that many in the city of 37,000 don't appreciate the number of tourists passing through on their way to Civil War sites such as Antietam or Gettysburg battlefields or to outdoor adventures on the Appalachian Trail.
"I think most people here are willing to help their fellow man, but it might not be a bad idea to help heighten that awareness," Mr. McClure said.
Mountain communities such as Hagerstown value deep traditions and privacy, said Jean Haskell, director of the Center for Appalachian Studies and Services at East Tennessee State University.
"They do believe it is important that you keep your nose out of other people's business, and that means, conversely, you want to be treated the same way," she said. "That doesn't mean people are not friendly or not supportive in a time of need, but they do think that people have a right to their privacy."
That could explain why many Hagerstonians avert their eyes while passing on the sidewalk, or why sales clerks often wait for customers to speak first.
Some outsiders may consider that rude. Elisa Groh of Elgin, Ill., recalled a painfully long lunch while passing through Hagerstown two years ago. She said she had to search for a waitress, who gave her slow service, totaled her check incorrectly and then disappeared.
"It was probably the most unpleasant service I have had in my life," Ms. Groh said.
But Barry and Donna Rowland of Portland, Ore., praised the service at another downtown restaurant, the recently opened Rhubarb House, where the owner stopped by to ask about their meal.
Mr. Hart, a transplant from North Dakota, said most Hagerstonians aren't indifferent to out-of-towners, but they might feel inferior.
"People who live here apologize for being here," he said. "People just don't realize what they have."
Case in point: Paul Spickler, whose family has run a tidy storefront grocery on the eastern edge of downtown for three generations.
"To me, there's just nothing to do in Hagerstown," Mr. Spickler said. "I don't know why someone would want to come to Hagerstown."
The former railroad town is a convenient place to find lodging for tourists on the Civil War trail from Antietam, 12 miles south, to Gettysburg, Pa., about 24 miles to the northeast. It's also a jumping off point for the hunting, fishing, whitewater rafting and other outdoor activities available in the mountains of Western Maryland.
An annual blues festival and Maryland Symphony Orchestra concerts also draw tourists.
However, travelers' first impression of Hagerstown as they get off Interstate 70 is of gloomy bars, faded storefronts and, at night, drug dealers and prostitutes.
Michael Todd, owner of the Truck-N-Van accessories shop, said the visitors he usually spots are most likely drug traffickers. "We have some tourists in this town we don't want, from New York City and New Jersey," he said.
Mr. Todd and other business owners on the block said their dealings with real tourists consist largely of pointing them to the Visitor Center up the street and around the corner on the refurbished Public Square. Hagerstown looks brighter there, with several upscale restaurants, an art gallery and the restored Maryland Theater.
Pamela Reed, owner of the Book Store Etc., a cheery gift shop, said the tourism campaign is part of a downtown recovery effort that hasn't fully flowered. With the college and Civil War museum, "things are going to pop," she said.
Twilight's Ristorante owner Michael Pishvaian, a member of the local tourism board, said prodding reluctant residents to embrace outsiders will help everyone.
"The gist of the campaign is to make everybody aware that tourists will bring us and by us, I mean the whole county benefits and name recognition," he said "and that every tourist will go back and tell 32 others."
The campaign's Web site is www.marylandmemories.org.

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