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County weighs forming own tourism agency

May 02, 2003|by DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - The "bull's eye" of tourism in Southcentral Pennsylvania is Hershey, but the Franklin County Board of Commissioners would like the agency that promotes tourism in the region to aim a little lower.

Franklin is the southernmost of the five counties in the Hershey-Capital Region Visitors Bureau, but the board wants more promotion for the nearly $150,000 in hotel tax revenue it is being asked to contribute.

The county is looking at possibly establishing an independent tourist promotion agency unless the bureau does a better job or promoting its attractions, officials said.

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"The further you are from the bull's eye, the less impact you have," Commissioner Bob Thomas said Thursday during a meeting with bureau officials. He said the county has some tourism targets that deserve to be promoted.

The 2003 Visitor's Guide for the bureau features Lancaster and Gettysburg, two popular tourist destinations, but Commissioner Cheryl Plummer used that to illustrate one of the county's concerns.

"Neither Lancaster or Gettysburg are members of the visitors bureau and don't contribute anything to it," Plummer said. She said the guide did not even list ChambersFest, the county seat's annual celebration marking its rebuilding after being burned by Confederate raiders in 1863.

Commissioner G. Elliott noted that Franklin County had only three listings out of 116 in the current year's calendar of events.

Janis Schmees, the bureau's executive director, said the guide was in the hands of the printers before she took over and was virtually unchanged from the year before.

Schmees said the bureau is planning a number of changes to better promote the entire region, which also includes Cumberland, Dauphin, Lebanon and Perry counties.

The primary source of income is the hotel room tax. Franklin County's 3 percent tax generated approximately $375,000 during its first year in 2002. Sixty percent of that, or about $221,000 will be used to fund local recreational and tourism programs within the county, with the balance earmarked for the bureau.

Dauphin County, the home of Hershey Park and its related convention businesses and attractions, will contribute about $200,000 to the bureau this year, although its hotel tax generates a few million dollars a year.

Cumberland County is contributing 50 percent of its 2 percent hotel tax, or about $450,000. Lebanon County also has a 2 percent tax with its 50 percent generating about $50,000.

"Give us a year and see if things change," Schmees said, asking the commissioners to stay with the bureau. She said the bureau is embarking on several new initiatives to broaden promotion for the entire region, including a magazine.

Other ideas include an expanded Web site, more advertising, expanded emphasis on group tours and amateur sports, she said. A new logo and slogan, "The Heart of Pennsylvania!" have also been adopted.

"My fear for you is you won't have enough money to stay on the map," Schmees said of the prospect of the county going it alone.

Last month the commissioners met with representatives from the four chambers of commerce and members of the bureau's board of directors from Franklin County.

Greater Chambersburg Chamber of Commerce President David Sciamanna, who is also a member of the bureau, said the group "volunteered to put together some thoughts" on what it would take to handle an independent tourism agency.

To make the plan work, he said the county would "need to reduce the amount of local grants in order to adequately fund a local" tourism agency.

That would mean less money for local municipalities and non-profit groups to develop recreation and tourism projects. At the same time, Sciamanna said all the money spent by a county tourism agency "would be spent 100 percent to promote Franklin County."

"No decision has been made, we're going to weigh all the options," Elliott said. A decision will probably come before July 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year for the bureau, he said.

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