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Budget cuts claim $5.3M tourism center

Ike Wilson
Frederick News-Post

(12/8) The Mason and Dixon Discovery state welcome center has been closed due to budget cuts.

Emmitsburg -- Three years after its official re-opening, the $5.3 million Mason and Dixon Discovery state welcome center has been closed.

The center is one of five throughout Maryland to fall victim to state budget cuts, said John Fieseler, Frederick County's director of tourism.

"The Tourism Council of Frederick County is saddened by the closing and to see the state employees of the center lose their jobs, yet we understand the dire budget situation facing the state," Fieseler said. "Although it is a new building, the state apparently felt that the funds that needed to be cut from this year's budget had brought them to the point where this visitor information facility, and two others, needed to be closed."

The center was one of three welcome hubs shuttered due to the budget, said Karen Glenn Hood, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Business & Economic Development, which operates the information centers.

Mason and Dixon had one of the highest costs per visitor, Hood said. Closing the center saves the state about $100,000 per year. One full-time and two part-time contractual employees lost their jobs, Hood said.

The state Board of Public Works, made up of the governor, treasurer and comptroller, decided to close the Bay Country and Sideling Hill centers at its July 22 Board of Public Works meeting. Mason and Dixon, Youghigheny and Chesapeake House were axed at the board's Nov. 18 meeting, she said.

Though the center is completely closed, the State Highway Administration-run rest area, which includes the parking, restrooms and the picnic area, remains open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week, Hood said.

There are no plans for the Maryland tourism development office to reopen the center, Hood said.

"But the Office of Tourism Development would be pleased to discuss alternative non-state operating arrangements if there is interest among local tourism industry stakeholders to invest in continued operation of the center," she said.

After a $5.3 million makeover, the Mason and Dixon center, formerly Emmitsburg Welcome Center, was described as a model for the enhancement of welcome centers throughout the state. It included Wi-Fi capabilities and televisions for up-to-date news, weather and road conditions.

Located just south of the Mason-Dixon Line, the center included an outdoor plaza and information hub designed to resemble a mid-19th century farmhouse. It offered traditional travel services, a gathering area with two fireplaces and an exhibit wing.

The center was busy, with an average 10,000 visitors a month from May through October, said Joan Hurd, the center's manager.

"Some days we have 15 to 20 buses -- mostly foreigners from Italy, Spain and Germany -- coming from New York, going to D.C.," Hurd said.

With 27 years of Frederick County tourism experience, Hurd said the Mason and Dixon was the newest visitor center she had worked in.

The center is ideally located for tourism, she said.

"Location has priorities. We can capture more local folks who want to volunteer, and we can promote more local history in this location than on the interstate," Hurd said.

The center tells the history of Mason-Dixon, not told anywhere in Pennsylvania or Maryland, said Marci Ross, assistant director for product development with the Maryland Office of Tourism Development.

"The Mason-Dixon history is about freedom, conflict and resolution, faith and humility. When people think of the Mason-Dixon, they usually think North and South and Maryland, hence, the need to capitalize on that history," Ross said. "It's a welcome center for the 21st century, designed and built to fit in with the scenery."