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Change just around bend for Pa. tourism

March 30, 2000|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - A lot of men are reluctant to stop and ask for directions, and Norma Bigham remembers a prime example, a man who walked into the Cumberland Valley Visitors' Station some years back.

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"We had a guy from Dallas, Texas, come in once and ask us how to get to Nashville," said Bigham, president of the Pennsylvania Capital Regions Vacation Bureau.

Having missed a left turn in Virginia, the accidental tourist had continued a few hundred miles north before asking for directions.

Bigham hopes more tourists find their way to Southcentral Pennsylvania by design. Toward that end, her organization, which represents Franklin and Lebanon counties, is merging today with the Harrisburg-Hershey-Carlisle-Perry County Tourist and Visitors Bureau at a ceremony in the State Capitol Building.

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The merger brings together Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin, Lebanon and Perry counties to create one of the state's largest tourist bureaus, Bigham said Wednesday. It also brings in one of the biggest tourist attractions in Pennsylvania, Hersheypark.

"Hershey, Gettysburg and Lancaster are the three biggest tourist destinations in Pennsylvania," Bigham said.

The five-county area generates about $2.5 billion in travel and tourist revenues a year, more than Philadelphia, Pittsburgh or the Poconos, according to a 1998 Pennsylvania Center for Travel Tourism and Film study. Bigham said this includes hotels, motels, restaurants, service stations, amusement parks and other businesses catering to travelers.

Despite that figure, the bureaus received $235,000 in state matching funds in 1998 compared to $1.7 million for Philadelphia, Bigham said. "We're hoping to increase that share."

Bigham became station director for the former Cumberland Valley Visitors' Council in 1988. In 1991 the council established a visitors center in Carlisle and in 1996 the council merged with the Lebanon Valley Tourist and Visitors Bureau to create the Pennsylvania Capital Regions Vacation Bureau, also known as the Pennsylvania Rainbow Region Vacation Bureau.

The bureau was unique because the counties do not share a border, Bigham said. They do share similar attractions, including Civil War and industrial history, rural settings, and state parks and forests that lure hunters and fishermen.

The Franklin County Board of Commissioners provides annual funding of $30,000 to the bureau with another $20,000 coming from Lebanon County. The bureau's budget for 1999-2000 is $450,000, mostly from business membership fees, advertising fund-raising and state matching funds.

With the merger, Bigham will head an organization with a $1.2 million budget.

In Franklin County, travel and tourism account for $216 million a year. About 4,000 people are employed in the hospitality industry, which generated $40 million a year in sales and income taxes in 1998.

Bigham expects regional tourism to increase with proposals to build a Civil War museum in Harrisburg and a military museum in Carlisle.

A visitors center is under construction in Lebanon County and a new center planned to replace the one in Carlisle.

"One of our goals is to build a visitors center in Harrisburg in the next three years," Bigham said.

The new bureau will employ 17 people and rely on more than 100 volunteers, many of them senior citizens.

On a recent weekday, Ina Shreiner, the station manager in Chambersburg, helped Connie Peer of Mifflintown, Pa., pick out a train engineer's cap and advised Ruth Branin and Joan Wood of Texarkana, Texas, about Amish hex signs.

"We have to be walking encyclopedias," said Shreiner, who is in charge of stocking the center with souvenirs of the Civil War, Amish culture and trains, which used to be a major industry in Chambersburg.

Shreiner said she and the volunteers have become experts on lodging, restaurants and local attractions and help lost travelers from across the country and around the world.

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