August 31, 2017
Good evening Mr. Chairman and Commissioners. My name is John Fieseler and I am the Executive Director of the Tourism Council of Frederick County, speaking on behalf of the organization. Our offices are located at 151 S. East St., the Frederick Visitor Center, a 117-year old cannery warehouse whose renovation and adaptive re-use I had the privilege to oversee. I'll be heading home after tonight's meeting to sleep in the 220-year old log & stone tannery house that my wife and I have restored over the course of the last 27 years, thanks in part to knowledge gained early on at workshops held by the Historic District Commission in this very room: repairing horsehair plaster, six pane window sash, a shake roof, half-round gutter, etc.
I mention all this to highlight that it would not be in my nature to recommend that Tourism support a project that involves removing a historic structure without feeling that feasible alternatives had been explored and finding that the tremendous benefit from the public improvement that would replace it was warranted. I remember early-on wondering whether the building associated with the former Birely Tannery could possibly be used as a hotel restaurant or bar. I was pleased when I heard Pete Plamondon wonder the same thing, as did the hotel specialist with Jones Lang LaSalle, or JLL. I am happy that you now have had the chance to see, over many hours and several workshops, the multiple attempts to keep both historic structures in place and still fit in the hotel and meeting space that this community needs, before the team recognized the need to proceed with a plan that necessitates removal of the tannery building.
We at Tourism promote Frederick as "Hip & Historic." We interact with visitors every day. We hear that what they love about our community is that it is a thriving modern city set in an authentic historic town. It is not frozen in time, nor filled with fake old buildings, yet, thanks to your efforts, 21st century development is sympathetic to extant structures from the 18th or 19th century. We have come to appreciate just how important a healthy downtown economy is to maintaining our building stock. As we travel to other cities and towns, across the state and elsewhere, we find places with plenty of historic fabric that is not being maintained. While I've heard folks who want to grow their business vilified for pursuing personal enrichment, the reality is that old commercial buildings are not maintained when owners don't have the financial incentive to do so. I'd like to believe that our promotional efforts coupled with those of local merchants, restauranteurs, art venues, the Downtown Frederick Partnership and others all help drive the downtown economy that sustains and supports the care of our beautiful historic district. We are enthusiastic supporters of the Downtown Hotel & Conference Center because it will further strengthen that economy. We believe that this project is the next positive game changer for our community.
You have already been presented with the figures about the economic impact, the taxes that will be generated and the number of jobs that will be supported. I would like to speak a bit about those jobs. We have heard hotel jobs belittled by opponents of this project. A report analyzing Bureau of Labor Statistics data that was released this week validates what the US Travel Association has been reporting all year: the travel industry not only sustains small businesses and communities, but also creates American jobs that cannot be outsourced. In turn, these leisure & hospitality jobs give workers a first foothold on the job ladder and provide valuable, transferable skills that are indispensable to career success.
- The majority of travel industry workers earn a middle-class income or higher.
- Nearly 40 percent of workers whose first job was in this industry reached an annual career salary of more than $100,000.
- Workers with a high school degree or less, women and minorities, who began their career in the travel industry achieved salaries that are 5- to 6-percent higher than workers who started off in other industries.
Plus, the data shows that leisure and hospitality employment recovered two years faster than the rest of the U.S. economy even though it was hit harder by the recession. The travel-dependent leisure and hospitality industry is the largest small-business employer in the United States, and small business sustains our historic downtown.
You may believe that a downtown hotel and conference center is a worthwhile project, but wonder whether this is the best site for it. We, at Tourism, do think that this is the best location for this project. A great many conferences are located in urban settings these days because attendees want to be able to walk from their meeting venue to great shops, restaurants, and attractions. This is especially true with millennials who have now become the largest segment in the American workforce. Yes ... meetings industry studies show they still see the value of face to face meetings. No, they don't necessarily want an organized welcome reception in a space off a hotel lobby, they want to be out together at a restaurant, brewery or distillery down the street.
In a report by "Meetings Mean Business," a conference industry-wide coalition, three quarters (75.6%) of people in all age groups surveyed indicated they are likely or highly likely to get 'out & about' when in a community for a meeting or exhibition, with Millennials the most likely to venture out at a combined 85.2%.
Communities that develop meeting facilities in distressed areas of town hoping they'll serve as a catalyst run into a big problem. Meeting planners will tour the shiny new center, but then look at boarded up buildings or vacant lots in the neighborhood and say "we're not bringing our people here." This site on Patrick Street and on Carroll Street puts guests right at our strong downtown commercial district and they will see it from the hotel, which is important. Likewise, and equally important, the site borders Carroll Creek Park which is increasingly an amenity about which our visitors ask. The substantial interaction of the hotel design along the length of the site's frontage on the Park is exactly the way abutting commercial development should align with and accentuate that amenity. Unfortunately, retention of the tannery building would be a significant deterrent to this major improvement project and the substantial benefits it will bring to Frederick. Also, this site allows easy access for arriving vehicles who will park less than a block off the entrance gateway from the interstate and not have to drive further into our downtown. Visitors can be on foot to explore ... and that foot traffic will help sustain the variety of shops and restaurants that local residents get to enjoy, which is already a greater variety than what local resident spending alone could support.
We are very excited about the planned restoration of the 110-year old Hagerstown & Frederick Railway terminal building. Ever since I got to Frederick in the late 70's and realized why those bricks around the front door of the Frederick News Post building were a different color ... because interurban trolley cars used to enter the building there, I've thought that it would be great to see that large opening restored. I've been to conferences in recent years where full service downtown hotels incorporate a former department store, such as the Marriott's in Lancaster and in Louisville, or a former newspaper such as the Westin in Montreal, and it is great to see how the heritage of the former uses gets shared with visitors today because of the adaptive reuse.
We do some interpretation now of Frederick's history in the tanning industry. There are a couple of panels about the industrial area in the southeast part of the City, including the Birely Tannery, at the front door of our Visitor Center, as well as a panel on a wayfinding kiosk on Carroll Creek Park that we worked on with the Downtown Frederick Partnership and the City. We think there is a potential to do so much more with the hotel project to share the story of the "trolley system that grew into an electric utility," the tanning industry, mills, canneries and manufacturers in the surrounding neighborhood. A few years ago we produced illustrated panels that hang inside Brewers Alley—one at the bar and one in a banquet room upstairs—that tell the story of the 1864 ransom of Frederick paid at the building that was formerly on that site. A whole lot more people now learn about that chapter of Frederick's history because they've come in for a meal or a beverage. Interpretation at a thriving hotel can expose our industrial heritage to thousands of people who otherwise may not have sought it out.
Finally, there has been the suggestion that the proposed hotel is too large and couldn't possibly induce another 50,000 room nights of annual hotel demand, so would cannibalize the local market. That one is easy to dispel as our two newest Frederick area hotels opened within four months of each other in the fall of 2015, adding a combined 239 hotel rooms to the market in a short period of time. Within the next year, 56,000 more hotel room nights were booked for a total of almost 581,000 in the market, and the average occupancy rate for the county had returned to where it was before the supply grew by more rooms than the Downtown hotel will add ... meaning the preexisting hotels were renting the same percentage of their rooms as they had before the new hotels opened. What's more, the proposed full service Marriott will give us our first property in the County that is in a category that we currently don't have .... what's known in the industry as Upper Upscale, where you'd find Hiltons, Hyatts, Marriotts and Wyndhams, among others. These are not Luxury properties like Ritz Carlton or Four Seasons. We have none of those, but also none of the next category down. This hotel will be our first and allow us to attract overnight visitors that currently pass us by. It will be great to not only induce that new demand, but also to do so in our beautiful downtown that historically was where Frederick hotels were located. This is the right project and the right location. We respectfully request your approval of the demolition request to allow it to happen.