Harford County’s Hidden Economic Treasure
On any given spring or summer weekend, Harford County welcomes 15,000 to 40,000 visitors. They are families drawn by baseball, lacrosse and soccer tournaments, and the opportunity for young athletes to be “seen” by coaches from colleges and universities from all over the country. Unknown to most residents, sports tourism is a hidden economic jewel in Harford County, and the potential impact is just beginning to be discovered.
Colin Clark, vice president of brand marketing for Ripken Baseball, says Harford County has become a sports destination because of its welcoming atmosphere and convenient location. “Harford County gives guests a great reception – it’s the people who make it so great, but it’s still a well-kept secret within the Mid-Atlantic region,” he notes.
Despite the fact that attending the Cal Ripken World Series in Aberdeen is the goal of 700,000 12-year olds around the globe every year, the impact of this attention has yet to be fully tapped. “The Road to Aberdeen” is Ripken Baseball’s newest message to baseball hopefuls, communicating the humble beginnings of Aberdeen and Cal Ripken, Sr. “We want to focus on baseball ‘The Ripken Way’ and the family that started it all right here in Aberdeen,” Clark says.
Each season, 18 Cal Ripken League baseball teams travel to the international Cal Ripken World Series. They come from seven different countries and 10 U.S. cities. In addition, the winning Harford County team acts as the host team for the Series. In its 11th year at Aberdeen’s Cal Sr.’s Yard, the event is covered live by CBS Sports Network and welcomes 25,000 people annually. Ripken Stadium and the Ripken Experience powered by Aberdeen itself drew more than 350,000 visitors last year. Clark notes that many baseball greats played in the Cal Ripken World Series as children, including Kolton Wong, second baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Clark says Ripken Baseball is all about the baseball experience. “The Ripken family has helped establish Aberdeen and The Ripken Experience as the birthplace of baseball. We have created new ways to evaluate a player’s baseball ability along with innovating how we teach baseball the Ripken Way with the new Ripken Performance Matrix,” he explains. “In addition, we’re taking the experience national with baseball tournaments, camps and clinics, with all roads leading back to Aberdeen.”
When these young athletes and their families prepare to visit Aberdeen, they can learn about local restaurants and hotels through the Ripken information packet, which provides listings and descriptions of area activities. Detailed information and local company sponsorships are also part of the Cal Ripken World Series website, and Clark estimates the site receives more than 500,000 hits during the week of the World Series.
At Cedar Lane Regional Park, just off of Routes 543 and 136 in Bel Air, much of the same activity is happening on its 12 grass athletic fields and one turf field. Opened in 2008, the park has become a premiere destination for youth sports tournaments in lacrosse, soccer, field hockey, rugby and football. The complex attracts more than 500,000 attendees each year and has hosted 84 tournaments since opening, which have an estimated annual economic impact on Harford County of more than $35 million. Cedar Lane Regional Park also hosted the US Lacrosse Women’s National Tournament, the MSYSA State Cup Championships and the USYSA Region 1 Premier League and National League Games.
The park has earned a reputation both as a quality venue and a showcase for talent. According to John McHugh, executive director of Cedar Lane Sports Foundation, hundreds of college coaches attend the weekend tournaments at Cedar Lane. “This year’s girls’ lacrosse tournaments have drawn as many as 200 to 300 college coaches in one weekend,” he says. “The athlete attendance is growing so much that our Inception Lacrosse Tournament registration sold out to teams within 90 minutes of the registration opening last September, and we tripled the number of teams over the last three years.”
Families visiting the county for youth sporting events at Cedar Lane Regional Park are alerted to local hotels and restaurants through the tournament host organization both electronically and in pre-tournament kits, as well as through partnerships on the park’s website. Danyelle Filiaggi, marketing director for The Greene Turtle in Aberdeen, says the restaurant partners with both Ripken Stadium and Cedar Lane Regional Park to bring visitors a great dining experience along with their sports experience. For example, Filiaggi says that The Greene Turtle makes plans to accommodate multiple groups of 30 to 50 people for meals during weekend activities at the parks. “We have a system in place that allows us to have at least three large groups in different areas of the restaurant. The servers are prepared to provide separate checks for each family, seat the athletes at their own tables, and even serve the athletes and coaches first so that they can make it back to the fields in time for their games,” Filiaggi explains.
Patti Parker, president of the newly formed tourism entity, Visit Harford! Inc. and director of sales at the Homewood Suites by Hilton, sees many untapped opportunities within the sports tourism realm. “Every weekend, people who are here for sporting events are asking at the hotel front desks for information on where to eat and what to do,” Parker says. “We need to make sure these people are aware of what the county has to offer, and we need the vehicle to direct this conversation. Visit Harford! will be like the concierge service for Harford County.”
The formation of Visit Harford! Inc. is the most recent effort to centralize these resources. According to Wini Roche, Harford County Tourism manager, Visit Harford! Inc. is the connection that will link people who are coming to the area for another reason with activities throughout the county. “We are going where the people are and providing information on county activities,” she says. The initial efforts of Visit Harford! Inc. include information desks staffed by volunteers at Maryland travel centers, an enhanced information area at the Chamber of Commerce and plans for a Visit Harford! welcome vehicle that will make stops at events. “It’s a resource for visitors and local people to find out what’s going on around the county,” Roche explains. “It will also be a resource for businesses to use to reach these visitors, by becoming a tourism partner.”
Roche notes that efforts to centralize a group reservation and trip customization service for teams and other large groups are underway through Visit Harford! Inc. An enhanced mobile website application that will afford visitors real-time access to information about attractions, services and events is also being developed.
Indeed, visiting teams search for entertainment and activities to fill their down time while at a tournament or event. One coach attending a Cedar Lane tournament says his team travels with a historian in tow so that they can take the girls to a historic site in each new city they visit.
In addition, tourism advocates hope the long-fought lodging tax that was approved this spring for Harford County will help in budgeting for additional tourism marketing efforts – in sports tourism and beyond. Parker is optimistic about the tax, which she says will work if a large portion is distributed back to marketing tourism in the county. “The tax should be a revenue stream to support businesses and attractions that bring people here,” she says.
Meanwhile, some area businesses are already recognizing that supporting sports tourism partnerships with Ripken Baseball and Cedar Lane Regional Park also benefits the community. For example, Giant Supermarkets has partnered with Ripken Baseball to bring free baseball clinics to the community. The “Get Out and Play” clinics encourage youth ages 7 to 12 to live healthy by eating right and getting exercise through playing baseball. University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health has partnered with Cedar Lane Regional Park for a commitment that includes the donation of a state-of-the-art electronic scoreboard. It is a smaller version of scoreboards recently installed at Towson University and Stevenson University, complete with video and audio.
“The scoreboard is a wonderful addition and it provides another element of professionalism to the park,” says McHugh. “Not only is the partnership with University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health a natural fit to encourage sports and healthy living, the scoreboard also gives other local businesses opportunities to reach this audience of visitors through a new communication vehicle.”
What about the locals? For one thing, sports tourism has brought jobs to the County. Cedar Lane Regional Park provides over 200 jobs each year during its tournament seasons. Ripken Baseball employs 55 full-time employees and hires hundreds more for the summer season. Clark says Ripken’s visitors are 65 percent out-of-towners, and the other 35 percent are from within the County. Ripken Stadium promotes Harford County baseball nights at the stadium throughout the season. Local recreational baseball teams are also invited to experience Ripken Stadium by playing on its fields on designated nights. Cedar Lane Regional Park hosts schools and recreational groups as well as clinics for local athletes. The park’s local attendance is estimated at 83,000 visitors each year.
Any way you look at it, sports tourism is a local treasure that’s ready to be discovered. I95