The St. Mary's County commissioners voted Tuesday to spend $100,000 for television commercials promoting tourism and economic development in the county, to be aired on WJLA, the ABC network affiliate in Washington.
It is an unprecedented commitment for St. Mary's, commissioners said. With splashy, professionally produced spots, the county hopes to lure tourists from around the Washington region to the many natural attractions of the Chesapeake Bay peninsula flanked by the Patuxent and Potomac rivers.
"This is a new way of doing things. . . . This is where success is made," said Board of Commissioners Vice President Joseph F. Anderson (D-Drayden).
The five commissioners voted unanimously to spend a third of the $300,000 that the county's new 5 percent accommodations tax is projected to generate in the fiscal year beginning July 1.
The commissioners approved the tax last week as part of the new operating and capital budget. Once implemented -- under an ordinance that is still being drafted -- the tax will be earmarked specifically for developing tourism and other strategies to diversify the county's economy.
"As you know, I don't like to spend $100,000 this quick, but tourism is the name of the game. I think if done right, we'd reap tremendous benefits," said Commissioner Daniel H. Raley (D-Great Mills).
WJLA Channel 7, one of the largest ABC network affiliates in the country, will produce the St. Mary's commercials and air the ads more than 100 times.
The station also guarantees "placements" for the county in other programming.
Often that consists just of a mere mention of the county's name on air -- with the weather or in conjunction with special news segments on the environment, education, cultural heritage history, watershed protection and other topics relevant to the area -- according to Natalie Jennings, a marketing executive for WJLA.
The news segments remain the domain of the station's editorial staff, separate from the advertising spots that the county will purchase, she said. The deal also includes "Weather Link," a live weather report for a full year, that might include, for example, mention of an upcoming Oyster Festival or other events, Jennings said.
St. Mary's County and Talbot County, which recently bought an identical promotional package, will be the pilots in what could be a nationwide marketing program for the network. The program ties in institutional television advertising -- similar to public service segments -- with the purchase of commercial spots promoting tourism or economic development.
"The minimum is the weather and the maximum is Diane and Charlie on the boat," Jennings said, referring to the hosts of ABC's morning show "Good Morning America," Diane Sawyer and Charles Gibson. As part of WJLA's marketing campaign, a local morning news crew will broadcast aboard a sailboat and talk about the environmental health of the Chesapeake Bay, Jennings said. The boat will dock and broadcast live from various locations, including sites in St. Mary's County yet to be determined.
"What a wonderful opportunity to highlight what's happening in St. Mary's County. It's a great branding mechanism," Jennings said.
The county's promotional spots could run during various programs, such as "Good Morning America," daytime soap operas, late evening news, college football or prime time, Jennings said. The station reaches 4 million households in the Washington area, Jennings said.
Jennings met with county business leaders Tuesday morning before she made her pitch to the county commissioners.
"There was consensus that this would be a very good thing," said Martin Fairclough, director of the county's Department of Economic Development.
"It seemed to me a tremendous opportunity to move St. Mary's County to the next level of promotion, into the markets where most of our visitors come from and markets that we will be targeting," Fairclough said.
Janet Cook, executive director of St. Mary's County Chamber of Commerce, was elated. "Can't you see me beaming? This morning when I heard this package being presented, I thought, `Yes. This is it.' We've needed to promote tourism in St. Mary's County."