Tourists in the mid-Atlantic region stayed closer to home this summer, and Prince William County hotels reaped the benefits, as their revenue increased 5 to 6 percent in July and August, according to a recent convention and visitors bureau survey.
Rising gas prices spurred residents from nearby cities in the Washington region, such as Baltimore and Richmond, to seek closer attractions for family getaways, the survey said.
The bureau has been pushing Potomac Mills, the county's daily-fee golf courses, the Manassas Battlefield and other Civil War sites to lure tourists. The agency advertised in Better Homes & Gardens, Country Living magazine and Ladies' Home Journal, but the pain at the pump has done the most to increase tourism, said Tabatha Mullins, executive director of the Prince William County/Manassas Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The 5 to 6 percent increase equaled about $1.5 million, Mullins said in an interview.
"It has a lot to do with gas prices," she told the Board of County Supervisors on Tuesday.
Most tourists came from Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Florida and Texas, she said, and specifically from the cities of Pittsburgh, Raleigh, Charlotte, Chicago, Philadelphia and Baltimore.
The average tourist has been part of a family vacation or 65 and older.
Besides Potomac Mills, which is by far the county's biggest draw with 30 million visitors annually, tourists were interested in Civil War sites as part of a tour of the region's history, Mullins said in an interview. "Prince William County would be a part of a Civil War excursion," she said.
The appeal of Prince William changed in September when the elite golf tournament, the Presidents Cup, was played at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, Mullins told supervisors.
Final numbers are not available yet, but September hotel revenues are likely to be even higher than July and August. On the bureau's Web site, Presidents Cup, Presidents Cup parking and Robert Trent Jones Golf Club were the subjects with the most hits, she said.
Although hotel revenues are up, they are not as high as surrounding counties since the federal General Services Administration does not classify Prince William as part of metropolitan Washington. Without that designation, government workers receive just $76 per diem for hotel rooms in Prince William while receiving $166 per diem in Fairfax, she said.
The county and Manassas have 3,100 rooms in 35 hotels, but the highest daily rate is $149.
Supervisor Hilda M. Barg (D-Woodbridge) and other supervisors said the county should push for a better rate through the federal agency. "We're continually thought of as Northern Virginia," Barg said.
In other business, supervisors heard a report on public comments about affordable housing for employees from Julian Bermudez, housing and community development director, and Paul C. Moessner, chairman of the workforce/affordable housing task force.
In May, the task force released a report showing that 99 percent of the 15,069 homes sold last year were out of the economic reach of entry-level teachers and police officers who make less than $38,000 annually.
The task force made several recommendations, including creating a loan program for employees and allowing developers to build more units than zoning allows in exchange for building affordable units in the same project.
About 60 people attended three citizen meetings on the recommendations Sept. 20, 22 and 24, and increasing density for developers drew the most ire from residents, Bermudez said. "This is probably the most intense one," Bermudez told the supervisors. "People have different opinions on how government should go in producing units."
"That was quite a lively discussion," he said.
Bermudez said he also polled about 600 employees about their needs and found that most want to live in the county but just cannot afford it.
Supervisor Corey A. Stewart (R-Occoquan) said he thought the task force was asking the wrong questions. Of course, people want to live closer to their jobs, he said, but they may not want to live in an area designated as "affordable."
Moessner said the task force's plan considers that sentiment. "The affordables, by design, get dispersed throughout the whole community," he said.