Prince William should promote tourism from a stand-alone, nonprofit agency--not from a department buried within county government, a new report says.

As the county works to attract new residents and businesses, it also must work harder to attract more visitors to its 40-plus tourist destinations, which aren't promoted as aggressively as they could be, a 19-member task force recommended yesterday to the Board of County Supervisors.

"What we need to do is reflect a new image for Prince William, to compete and keep up with all the economic development activity," said Steven Ryner, the panel's chairman and a Woodbridge businessman. "The county needs a unified effort," he said.

Prince William's $1.1 million tourism industry is now overseen by the county's Park Authority, which devotes seven full-time and six part-time employees to marketing and promotion.

Supervisors, concerned those efforts might need more focus and visibility, appointed the task force last spring to examine whether a separate entity might be more effective. The panel's members represent a range of businesses, historic sites and hotels.

Tourism money has until now been spent on public relations, advertising of sites, and festivals and grants to small groups such as sports leagues. But the report urged the county to think bigger, even to hire a professional consultant to organize its tourism program.

The emphasis on smaller marketing efforts has rankled some in the tourism community. "If you advertise a swim team or Little League tournament, you're marketing to a captive audience, because those people are going to come here anyway," said Debra Sandlin, sales director for the Days Inn hotel in Woodbridge.

Among the keys to a stronger tourism base are a countywide marketing strategy that places less emphasis on individual neighborhoods, more market research on which destinations should be targeted and a focus not only on overnight visitors but also those on day trips to Prince William, the report says.

Some basic marketing tools are lacking, according to the report. There are no signs to direct tourists to various attractions and no visitor centers on the county's major roads, Interstates 66 and 95. Advertising presents an unusual challenge in a county of 345 square miles connected by a limited network of roads.

But the panel said a new tourism agency's top priority should be to bring a conference and convention center to Prince William, ensuring a steady stream of revenue from business groups.

Northern Virginia has yet to build a convention center, and it's unlikely the region could support more than one, tourism officials say. A facility would be an economic boon to the first county to develop it.

But Prince William also lacks a smaller-scale conference center, which neighboring Loudoun County has. The developers of the Belmont Bay complex under construction on the Occoquan waterfront hope to lure a conference center as one of its first tenants, county officials said.

Visitors to Prince William and Manassas spent $262 million in 1997, the last year for which statistics are available. The number was up 17 percent from 1996, and county officials expect to see a similar jump for 1998.

The Potomac Mills mall, Virginia's No. 1 tourist attraction, led 23 million visitors to Prince William in 1998. The county's second-largest attraction was the Manassas National Battlefield Park, with 973,229 visitors.

Task force members noted that while the county has approximately 40 attractions, from the Marine Corps Air-Ground Museum to the Prince William Forest National Park, many visitors and even county residents aren't aware of them. "Even the hoteliers and restaurateurs would be shocked to learn what's here," said Jeanne Hockmuth, retired curator of the Weems-Botts Museum in Dumfries, which dates back 200 years.

With 240,000 visitors last year, Leesylvania State Park was Virginia's most popular state park, members said.

Prince William's tourism dollars come from a hotel occupancy tax levied on guests staying in the county's 19 hotels. Hotel guests are charged a 5 percent tax on every room, of which 3 percent is pumped into the county's tourism budget. The remaining money goes into the general fund for use in schools and other agencies.

Revenues from the tax--called the transient occupancy tax--have climbed steadily since 1996, when the state authorized the 3 percent allocation directly to tourism projects. The county collected $820,000 from the tax last year and projects it will collect $926,000 in the fiscal year that ends next June, said Tabitha Mullins, Prince William's director of tourism.

The task force recommends using the share of hotel tax now going to the county's general fund--about $800,000 this year--to develop a conference or convention center, a project that could cost millions.

A new tourism agency would be controlled by a board of directors appointed by the supervisors. The panel did not examine how many people should staff it or whether its budget should come from sources other than the hotel tax.