Prince Frederick, MD – Although they were not required to take action, the Calvert County Commissioners addressed the controversial issue about the operation of a visitor center in Solomons at their Tuesday, June 23 meeting. A contract between county government and the Calvert County Chamber of Commerce is scheduled to expire at the end of June. While the Chamber appears to be out of the picture, several part-time employees who served as staff are likely to become assimilated into county government’s ranks for at least the next few months.
Driving the issue are statistics provided by the Calvert Chamber, which show a significant decrease in visitations to the Solomons facility since fiscal year (FY) 2004, when nearly 19,000 people utilized the service. For the current fiscal year and the two previous years the number has been below 8,000, a decline of roughly 60 percent.
The declining visitor center numbers and higher costs proposed by the local chamber prompted the previous board of commissioners to eliminate staff from the Fairview Visitor Center in Owings last year. Operation of the Solomons facility was approved for FY 2015, which ends June 30.
“If the board desires to maintain operations of the Solomons Visitor Center beyond June 30, the board’s action is requested to award an extension of the contract through the board’s desired end date, for example, through Labor Day, Sept. 7 or through the end of the calendar year, Dec. 31,” a memo from Department of Economic Development Director Linda Vassallo stated.
Prior to discussion of the visitor center’s fate, the public comment portion of the meeting produced support for continuing to operate the facility with its present staff.
“I understand the decision was an economic one,” said Van Ireland, who added the visitor center staff frequently directs out-of-county residents to amenities such as parks, restaurants and hotels which yield economic benefits for Calvert.
Carolyn Meadows said that while brochures, web pages and global positioning systems (GPS) appear to be the justification for discontinuing visitor centers staffed with people, “there’s no substitute for a warm welcome. First impressions of the county are important” in the promotion of tourism. “The center brings revenue into the area,” she stated.
“I just don’t see the cost benefits of this,” said Commissioner Evan K. Slaughenhoupt Jr. [R – District 3], who conceded the visitor center personnel are knowledgeable. The expenditure of $30,000 to the Calvert Chamber for the scaled back operation of the center between July 1 and Dec. 31 was not a good idea given the county’s fiscal challenges, Slaughenhoupt indicated.
Both Slaughenhoupt and Commissioner Mike Hart [R – District 1] indicated they were supportive of a plan to provide tourist information at Calvert Marine Museum (CMM) and the Southern Branch of Calvert Library.
“We are not closing tourism,” said Hart. “We are moving it across the street.”
Commissioner Tom Hejl [R – At Large], who expressed support for keeping the visitor center open through Oct. 31 and then closing it for the cold weather season, disagreed, stating CMM and library staffers “should not have to answer questions they don’t know the answer to.”
Commissioner Pat Nutter [R – District 2] declared that expecting CMM staff to answer questions about the entire county “is not going to work.” Nutter then indicated he would not be opposed to circumventing an agreement with the local chamber and make the visitor center staff county employees.
Commissioners’ President Steve Weems [R – At Large] stated he favored using $11,958 from the commissioners’ contingency to keep the center open in July and August for four days a week.
A revised motion to keep the center open through late November passed on a 3-to-2 vote with Slaughenhoupt and Hart opposed.
A second motion was made to bypass the Calvert Chamber of Commerce and make the center staff county employees. That motion also passed 3-to-2, this time with Weems and Hejl opposed.
Weems declined support for the second motion, calling it “jumbled and confused.”
Hejl agreed and also lamented the severing of ties with the Chamber. “We should have some relationship with the chamber,” said Hejl.
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