Talking History … with John Fieseler
By Scott Grove | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 04.15.21
In less than three decades, tourism has evolved into one of Frederick County’s largest industries. John Fieseler, who recently announced his retirement as executive director of the Tourism Council of Frederick County, looks back at how the industry developed and the financial and cultural contributions it has made.
Scott: So much that is related to tourism has changed in the past 25 years?
John: In the early 1990s, tourism as an industry was bringing in about $80,000 a year to Frederick County, well behind the largest industry of dairy farming. My predecessor, Jeanne (Vasold) Russell, initiated strategic planning efforts that continued into the start of my tenure as executive director in December 1997. Once completed, the organization became more focused on promoting Frederick County as an overnight destination. The plan acknowledged that our mission was to increase the amount of visitor spending within the county. To achieve this, the organization’s marketing budget would need to be substantially increased by a dedicated funding stream to maintain the marketing effort.
Scott: At what point do you believe Frederick County emerged as a true regional destination?
John: Probably 2004, when the Frederick County hotel rental tax was implemented and the dedicated revenue was secured for increased marketing outreach. I’m proud that we had bipartisan support for both the state law and county ordinance that directed the funds to tourism. We’ve been able to advertise to visitors throughout the Mid-Atlantic region and beyond who travel farther to get here, stay longer and spend more money.
Scott: Where is the industry today in terms of visitor numbers and dollars?
John: The most recent data, from 2019, shows that there were 2.1 million people who traveled more than 50 miles to visit Frederick County. They spent $426.1 million. That’s up from $126.6 million spent by visitors in 1998, the year the strategic plan was adopted. In addition, Frederick County is now garnering a larger share of visitor spending within Maryland. In the late 1990s, the county ranked 11th out of the 25 jurisdictions (the 23 counties, Baltimore City and Ocean City). Since then, Frederick County has climbed to eighth place. From 2000 through 2019, visitors spent a cumulative $1.85 billion more here than if Frederick County had remained in 11th place over that time.
Scott: How was the location of the Frederick Visitor Center determined?
John: Once plans were announced for the extension of South East Street to a new interchange on I-70 and a connection to Md. 85, we started looking at sites located on what would be the new gateway into Downtown Frederick. Staying at our former 19 E. Church St. center would have meant visitors would have to navigate one-way streets to get there. We evaluated several sites along East Street and settled on the real fixer-upper: the old cannery warehouse turned cabinet shop, vacant since the City of Frederick acquired the land for the East Street extension a decade earlier. We liked that it was an historic brick building, reinforcing the character of the adjacent historic district, and that we would be the sole tenant in the freestanding building—making it easier for visitors to find us. While the building needed a new roof and had bricked-up windows and walls in need of repointing, it was generally sound. The original walls and heavy timber trusses remain, but we were able to add structural insulated panels to the roof, a new floor and interior partitions to create the spaces for our Visitor Center exhibits, orientation video theater and Visit Frederick offices. We moved in a decade ago in April 2011.
Scott: It seems many newborn industries have contributed to local tourism in the past decade.
John: Agritourism in general and the craft beverage industry in particular have really blossomed. We are fortunate to have great partners at Frederick County Office of Economic Development who have helped guide the growth of these businesses. More municipalities have also been designated as Main Street communities, strengthening the promotion of our historic downtowns. The Downtown Frederick Partnership in particular has done amazing work.
Scott: How important is a Downtown hotel to tourism?
John: I believe a Downtown hotel will be the next big game changer for Frederick. I think the proposed full-service Marriott will happen and be warmly welcomed by travelers. It’s unfortunate the matter became divisive, as there are very good answers to the questions many people would have when a public-private venture is proposed. The Visitation Academy project is also very exciting and will help fill the need for Downtown lodging.
Scott: How else do you see local tourism developing in the future?
John: I think there will be a number of exciting developments, including a significant expansion of the county’s network of trails and bikeways. Also, there will be a continued effort to tell underrepresented stories, presented as interpreted visitor experiences—such as the planned African American Resources and Cultural History Heritage Center and the work of the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society.
Scott: Any parting words?
John: I’ve been blessed to have this job. Frederick County is large enough that there is always a lot going on, yet small enough that the staffs of different organizations know each other. It has been a joy to be able to partner with so many passionate people who also love their community.
John Fieseler and his wife, Katie, live in a restored 1790s log-and-stone house near Keymar. In retirement, John looks forward to doing more travel, wood-working projects and to remain active in the Rotary Club of Frederick. Scott Grove is the owner of Grove Public Relations, LLC, an advertising and marketing firm. A former reporter and lifelong student of history, his work also includes interpretive planning and design for museums and historic sites. Grove is the co-creator of the Frederick Maryland Walking Tour mobile app. For more info, visit itourfrederick.com or grovepr.com.