Kent County Tourism had humble beginnings

DOVER — Amidst the clutter of a small room in Treadway Towers, Kent County Tourism got its start.

There sat Lois Hoffman, a local travel agent, county economic development champion Dan Wolfensberger and others just a few blocks from the historical and capital sites and museums that Dover boasts.

Tom Smith, who had the Delaware Made store and served on the Main Street Dover board, was there.

“Dan said the first meeting was going to be in his office,” recalled Mr. Smith on Wednesday. “He actually meant was that we were going to meet in a store room. It was full of boxes and we literally moved everything to the back of the room to have a place to sit.

“Talk about humble beginnings.”

Cindy Small offers a Top 25 list of events and sites in Kent County: 1. Two NASCAR races 2. Firefly Music Festival 3. Delaware State Fair 4. Dover Downs Hotel & Casino 5. Harrington Raceway & Casino 6. Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge 7. Dover Days Festival 8. Air Mobility Command Museum 9. Amish countryside 10. Amish Bike Tour 11. Delaware Wine and Beer Festival 12. First State National Monument 13. First State Heritage Park 14. Fifer Orchards 15. Good Libations Tour 16. Killens Pond State Park 17. July Fourth Festival 18. Schwartz Center 19. Smyrna Opera House 20. African American Festival 21. 18th Century Market Fair 22. Delaware Bayshore Byway 23. Biggs Museum 24. Old State House 25. Spence’s Bazaar

Cindy Small offers a Top 25 list of events and sites in Kent County:
1. Two NASCAR races
2. Firefly Music Festival
3. Delaware State Fair
4. Dover Downs Hotel & Casino
5. Harrington Raceway & Casino
6. Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge
7. Dover Days Festival
8. Air Mobility Command Museum
9. Amish countryside
10. Amish Bike Tour
11. Delaware Wine and Beer Festival
12. First State National Monument
13. First State Heritage Park
14. Fifer Orchards
15. Good Libations Tour
16. Killens Pond State Park
17. July Fourth Festival
18. Schwartz Center
19. Smyrna Opera House
20. African American Festival
21. 18th Century Market Fair
22. Delaware Bayshore Byway
23. Biggs Museum
24. Old State House
25. Spence’s Bazaar

Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, Kent County Tourism is “hot.”

That’s the term director Cindy Small used in the title of her presentation at Tuesday’s Kent County Profile unveiling at the Air Mobility Command Museum.

The Kent County Profile, a collaborative effort of the Kent Economic Partnership and the Delaware State News, is published annually and serves as a tool to market the county. At the “unveiling,” Ms. Small was among the speakers outlining progress in the area.

Kent County Tourism, a nonprofit organization, takes on the role of luring and welcoming visitors to the county. Check out the list with this article today to see 25 events and places that are helping to fill hotel and motel rooms.

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It seems odd now to people like Mr. Smith that a visitors bureau was not initially embraced.

Ms. Hoffman was the first to pitch the idea of a tourism organization to the chamber, he said.

“Some people thought it was a crazy idea,” Mr. Smith said. “A direct quote from somebody at the chamber at that time was, ‘Who would ever come to Kent County?’ That’s the kind of early opposition that there was.”

LeRoy Klein, a well-respected mover and shaker on the Central Delaware Economic Development for two decades, and others backed the idea and made it happen.

It also helped that state legislators 25 years ago created the lodging tax that now helps fund tourism marketing in each county.

With funding in place, they needed to find a leader. That ended up being Mary Skelton, a public relations pro who once hosted the popular “Romper Room” children’s television show in Baltimore.

“She was just fabulous,” said Mr. Smith.

To answer the naysayer from the chamber, there were reasons to come to Dover.

“What we had, of course, was history,” said Mr. Smith. “We had the Green and the state capital and our museums.

“But look what it has blossomed into. Tourism is so much more now.”

***

There is an 8 percent tax on every Delaware hotel stay. From that, 5 percent goes to the state’s General Fund, 1 percent to beach preservation, 1 to the Delaware Tourism Office and the remaining 1 percent divided between the county offices proportionately.

Kent County receives about 14 percent of that 1 percent that is split between the counties, Ms. Small said.

“It’s not an extreme amount of money so we really have to make it count,” said Ms. Small.

She said the lodging tax revenues get put directly into marketing initiatives throughout the Mid-Atlantic region where most of the county’s visitors come from.

“When the economy tanked in 2007, we lost 30 percent of our revenue,” she said. “We started working hard to build up our events and get revenue from ticket sales and what not.”

She said the tourism office’s events have to pay for themselves.

Dover Days set a new high of 50,000 visitors last year.

The Amish Bike Tour had 2,700 registrations, making it the biggest cycling event in the state.

Her office initiated the Delaware Wine and Beer Festival and the Good Libations Tour. Each of those plays off the entrepreneurship of new breweries, wineries and a distillery.

Her office also fields a lot of calls for those planning trips to Dover for two NASCAR events a year and the big music festivals.

“We thank our lucky stars every day,” said Ms. Small.

***

Ms. Small, previously the director of Southern Delaware Tourism in Sussex, is only the second tourism director in Kent, taking over for Ms. Shelton eight years ago.

She muses now that she had a certain jealousy about what Ms. Skelton had in Central Delaware.

And, she also reflects on what Ms. Skelton had for office space at Treadway Towers, down the hall from the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce and economic development office. The space was cramped and the conference remained that cluttered store room for years.

At some point, longtime chamber director, Al Hedgecock, gave up his old furniture — a massive desk and credenza — and Ms. Skelton took it.

“Mary told me that they were going to throw it out,” she said. “She said, ‘It’s better than what we have. we’ll take it.’”

When Ms. Small moved in, someone asked if she wanted to “get rid of that old junk in there and get yourself some swanky new modern furniture.”

“I said, ‘Hell no, I love this stuff.’ Half of the knobs are broken off,” she said. “It doesn’t matter to me. It’s part of the history of the beginning of this whole thing.”

***

AMC Museum director Mike Leister said the museum had more than 100,000 visitors in 2014,

AMC Museum director Mike Leister said the museum had more than 100,000 visitors in 2014,

Thank you to Director Mike Leister, his staff and the many volunteers at the Air Mobility Command for serving as hosts of the Kent County Profile unveiling on Tuesday.

The museum continues to be a popular destination. More than 100,000 people visited the museum last year. The AMC Museum is home to the nation’s best collection of military airlift planes.

Mr. Leister showed off one of the museum’s newest pieces after the Profile gathering on Tuesday.

It’s a bright green Soviet-era Antonov An-2 Colt, an single-engine bi-plane put into service in the years following World War II.

The team at the AMC Museum takes great pride in details on the planes, and in this case, it made sure that the markings were in Cyrillic.

Parts and pieces to make the aircraft authentic often come with interesting twists, too.

The compass needed was found on Ebay and purchased from a seller in Bulgaria.

Reach editor Andrew West at awest@newszap.com

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