A growing, diverse tourism industry has visitors (and their dollars) pouring in
When Fairfax County, Va., residents Larry and Norma Davis first stumbled onto Frederick a couple of years ago, they weren’t expecting much. “You really didn’t think there is much in Frederick,” recalls Larry Davis, a resident of Herndon, Va. But what they found wasn’t the sleepy, old town they had imagined; it was a bustling little city, where the historic buildings served new lives, cafes buzzed with voices and boutiques lured shoppers with an endless selection of unique gifts and artisan foods. The Davises were charmed and eagerly came back for a few short visits.
When their children gave them a two-night gift certificate this year for the Hollerstown Hill Bed and Breakfast in Downtown Frederick, they had more than a reason to return. On a wintry Saturday morning, the Davises buttoned up their coats and headed out to enjoy a relaxed weekend of shopping, restaurant hopping and strolling through Downtown. “We were here last year and it was cold, too,” Norma Davis says. “But we like walking around Downtown. … We will check out the shops and have lunch somewhere.”
Having already eaten at Family Meal—one of celebrity chef Bryan Voltaggio’s two Frederick restaurants—the Davises were looking forward to exploring Frederick’s elaborate selection of local eateries.“It is so nice to be able to eat at a restaurant that is not a chain,” Norma Davis says.
Frederick County has transformed itself during the past 15 years into an attractive daytrip and tourist destination that can offer more than just Civil War sites and other types of history-based attractions.
Whether they are history buffs or foodies, art connoisseurs, antique shoppers or outdoor enthusiasts, more and more out-of-county travelers like the Davises have been finding their way into the area. “You can have the downtown experience here without the hustle and bustle of a major metro area,” says John McCain, general manager of The Wine Kitchen, a restaurant along Carroll Creek Linear Park.
While the county’s historic sites and museums remain a big draw, increasingly visitors today are coming to dine and shop, see shows and exhibits, drink local wines and brews or play golf. “Frederick always used to be a place that is close to Baltimore; a place that is close to Washington D.C.; a place that is close to Gettysburg. Now it has become a destination of its own,” says Chris Moore, owner of golffrederickmd.com, which has been marketing golf packages in the area for 11 years.
Tourists visiting the area today are spending twice as much as they did in 2000 and that money is becoming an important vehicle for boosting the local economy, supporting businesses, creating jobs and helping maintain and grow the area’s vibrant selection of attractions and activities, says John Fieseler, executive director of the Tourism Council of Frederick County.
In 1997 a TravelScope study estimated that 399,000 tourists had visited the area, compared to the Tourism Council’s most recent statistics that indicate that more than 1.7 million visitors came to Frederick County in 2013. Tourists in fiscal 2013 spent $361 million during their stay in the area, which equals 4,131 jobs and $117.7 million in salaries, according to Tourism Council statistics. In 1998, by comparison, visitors spent $126.5 million while visiting Frederick County.
Better yet, the statistics only account for visitors from 50 miles or more away, overlooking people like the Davises or those coming from Montgomery County and Washington, D.C., Fieseler says—amplifying the actual affect tourism has on the local economy.
Frederick County now ranks eighth among all counties in Maryland by tourism spending, compared to 11th in 1998, Fieseler says. That change represents a cumulative gain of $1 billion in tourism revenues for the Frederick County area for the 15 year period, he says. “We are seeing a big influx of millennials,” Fieseler says. “Baby boomers seem to be following the same patterns. We are very blessed that we can attract and appeal to different generations.”
Meanwhile, the City of Frederick, home to the largest designated historic district in Maryland, has become an attraction in its own right because of its beautiful streetscapes, growing arts offerings and varied dining scene. “What people really love about Downtown Frederick is how walkable it is,” says Fieseler, who estimates that the City of Frederick draws about 75 percent of all Frederick County visitors today.
Downtown Frederick houses 850 businesses, including 250 bars, restaurants, stores and other retail establishments. And many of those rely on out-of-town visitors for at least part of their revenues. “Frederick provides a very authentic experience,” says Richard Griffin, director of economic development for the City of Frederick. “The number of visitors coming to Frederick has increased dramatically over the last 15 years.”
Marlene England, whose Downtown toy store Dancing Bear Toys and Gifts has been open for 15 years, says the increase in visitors has been palpable.
“Frederick is a different place than it was 10 years ago,” says England, who runs the store with her husband, Tom. “There is new energy.”
The Englands opened their second Downtown store, Curious Iguana, last year and attract a mix of local and out-of-town customers. “We certainly would not survive on tourism alone,” she says. “But to me it is a perfect blend.”
FOOD AND ARTS
One of Frederick’s biggest tourism assets today is the thriving restaurant scene. From organic eateries to wine bars and ethnic restaurants offering a taste of Italian, Mexican, Cuban, Japanese, Vietnamese or Eastern Mediterranean cuisine, the city today can satisfy every taste and budget. “The dining scene has exploded,” says Robyn Hildebrand, manager of the Frederick Visitor Center.
To an extent, the buzz that followed the opening of VOLT—celebrity chef Bryan Voltaggio’s flagship restaurant—has helped popularize the Downtown dining scene. Blending in urban sophistication with a hipster flair, VOLT opened in 2008, a year before Voltaggio, a Frederick native, finished as the first runner-up on Bravo’s Top Chef reality show. Hailed by The Washington Post as “the most interesting restaurant in the state,” VOLT helped introduce Frederick to a whole crowd of foodies and day-trippers from Montgomery County, Washington and Baltimore who may not have ever thought to connect the concept of upscale dining with Frederick County.
“They definitely opened the door and put Frederick on the map,” says the Wine Kitchen’s McCain. The restaurant has been open for about three years and serves about 800 to 900 customers on weekends, with about 40 percent of those being out-of-county visitors, he says.“Without tourism, all these restaurants would not be able to thrive like they do now.”
Downtown stores have also responded to the demands of foodies and now offer artisan and hand-crafted food items for every taste—from specialty teas to chocolates and cupcakes. At the North Market Pop Shop, visitors can choose from 60 varieties of vintage sodas, while at Pretzel & Pizza Creations a few doors down they can get a fresh pretzel prepared before their eyes.
“I do think that Frederick has become a foodie destination,” says Maggie Lebherz, owner of Lebherz Oil & Vinegar Emporium in Frederick. “Now there are so many options and they are all good quality options.” Lebherz’s store, which sells more than 50 varieties of olive oil and vinegar, has been open for five years and has a mix of out-of-town and local customers.
Tourists’ fascination with high-quality food and drinks has also extended into the Frederick County countryside, where visitors go to seek out fresh, locally grown products. Exploring the growing number of wineries and breweries that have been mushrooming throughout the county is also becoming a popular activity for day-trippers. “We have definitely seen an uptick of people visiting us from outside the area,” says Jessica Garcia, marketing director for Berrywine Plantations/Linganore Winecellars in Mount Airy, one of the oldest wineries in Frederick County.
The Catoctin Breeze Vineyard in Thurmont, which opened two years ago, draws customers from the Gettysburg and the Washington areas, says owner Voytek Fizyta.
“It is easier for people from Washington, D.C., to go to a winery 30 minutes down the road than to go to Napa Valley,” Fizyta says.
But why go for a meal when you can also have a show? And whether they are coming in for gallery openings, shows at The Weinberg Center for the Arts or art exhibits at the Delaplaine Visual Arts and Education Center, more and more tourists are discovering the appeal of Frederick’s growing art scene. “We have an increased population of audiences from Montgomery County and D.C. who choose to come here rather than go to D.C.,” says Weinberg Theater Manager John Healey. “They know the value of their dollar goes further in Frederick County.”
The Weinberg Center welcomed 70,000 visitors in 2013, compared to 32,000 in 2006, Healey says. Though the majority of the Weinberg Center’s audience comes from within a 20-mile radius, some visitors come to Frederick from as far away as the Eastern Shore, Philadelphia and Ohio, Healey says.
A former president of the Tourism Council, Healey believes in leveraging the arts to direct tourists’ attention to Frederick County. “We have tried to reach out and figure out how to make the Frederick area more attractive for visitors,” Healey says. “For a town of this size, you’ve got many arts-related attractions here. There are so many reasons to come and spend time in Frederick.”
THE CHALLENGE AHEAD
But when they come, where do they stay? Tourism advocates today see the future in the ongoing plans to construct a full-service Marriott hotel and convention center in Downtown Frederick, which will generate more tourism and business in the area.
Plamondon Hospitality Partners, which is working on the project in partnership with the city, has unveiled plans for a 207-room building featuring 25,000 square feet of meeting space. Under the current plans, the hotel would be located along Carroll Creek at 200 E. Patrick St. The five-story hotel will be connected to the historic trolley terminal building that used to house The Frederick News-Post, which will be restored and renovated for retail use. Slated for construction in 2016 and opening in 2017, the new hotel will have a rooftop lounge overlooking the creek and Frederick’s famous clustered spires.
“It will allow people to see Frederick like it has never been seen before,” says Peter Plamondon Jr., co-president of the company that bears his family’s name. “It is not going to fight the Downtown architectural elements; it’s going to conform to it.”
Plamondon says the project will also fill the need for a conference center in the county and also encourage business travelers, who currently stay in hotels on the outskirts of town, to take advantage of Frederick’s Downtown.
Growth among all hotels, following a dead period between the 1970s and mid-1990s, has been steady in recent years, officials say, averaging one new hotel every year and a half. And while Fieseler believes the county has slowly been been gaining the infrastructure needed to accommodate more overnight travelers, he and other officials maintain the missing piece is a Downtown hotel.
Without a hotel Downtown, it has been difficult to truly establish Frederick as an attractive destination for overnight visitors. “A tremendous amount of people would like to stay Downtown,” says Griffin, the city’s economic chief. Also, Fieseler believes the location would appeal to millennial visitors and others who immerse themselves into the community where they are staying while traveling for business or pleasure, he says.
While plans for the new hotel are moving forward, the Frederick County Tourism Council will continue its ongoing efforts to promote the area as both an attractive day-trip and overnight destination. Thanks to major historic celebrations, such as the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 2013 and the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Monocacy in June 2014, Frederick County has been getting increased publicity and interest among tourists. But now that these celebrations have passed, the Tourism Council will have to maintain the momentum by continuing to advertise the area in print publications, TV ads and even on travel blogs, Fieseler says.
“The challenge is getting our message out in competition with other destinations,” he says.