In voting to raise the hotel tax from 2.5 percent to 5 percent on Feb. 5, Centre County commissioners signaled an intent to grow local tourism.
On Monday, the Central Pennsylvania Convention and Visitors Bureau hosted the commissioners to discuss how the organization plans to use the increased levy. The extra 2.5 percent is projected to generate about $4 million in new revenue during the first year and 500 new jobs over a longer period, bureau Executive Director Fritz Smith said.
The higher rate takes effect April 1.
“One of the responsibilities we have (as commissioners) is to encourage, support and strengthen our community,” board Chairman Michael Pipe said. “And the innovative approach we’re going to be taking with these additional funds is going to be really special to watch.”
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The bulk of the revenue — about 80 percent — Smith said, will be spent on increased sales and marketing efforts to attract more people to the county. That includes a revamped website and rebranding project, slated to start July 1.
“We’ve learned that the name Central Pennsylvania Convention and Visitors Bureau just doesn’t seem to resonate with people outside of this region,” Smith said. “They don’t get a clear image of who and what we’re talking about when we say that.”
Most of the remaining funds will be funneled into CPCVB’s grant program, which Smith said will now allow nonprofit and for-profit organizations to apply for help promoting their events. In 2017-18, CPCVB gave out $504,214 to 39 organizations — including the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, Central PA 4th Fest and Centre County Grange Fair.
“What you have to understand to have a full view of the hotel tax is that most of the money is generated in the Centre Region ... but what really happens is that that money draws opportunities for outlying parts of the community,” Commissioner Steve Dershem said. “For instance, there’s probably no hotels in Aaronsburg, but Aaronsburg is a beneficiary, because their fall fest and other programs get funds.”
As a regular applicant for the grant, arts festival Executive Director Rick Bryant said that he hopes to use the funds to help enhance the organization’s website and improve its social media efforts, including with more video.
“If you have a nonprofit and you need to watch your P’s and Q’s, it can be really easy to think: ‘Oh, I’ll just cut the marketing and it’ll be fine.’ But that’s not really true,” Bryant said. “The visitors bureau grants help us invite everybody to the arts festival. People think that they know about it, but they usually just have a vague idea. It really lets us tell our story.”
Commissioner Mark Higgins’ hope is that with extra funds, there will be more events like the arts festival, and that some others can continue to grow and attract more people, like the Central PA Theatre and Dance Festival. It debuted last summer.
The attraction featured more than 100 events and more than 300 artists over three days. But coming up with the funds it takes to let people know about the event, and allow its continued growth, can put a strain on nonprofit, organizer Elaine Meder-Wilgus said.
“We were very proud about what we were able to do last year,” she said. “But the No. 1 stumbling block for any arts organization is marketing. It is imperative. We have the talent. Somehow, miraculously, we have the time, but rarely do we have enough funds to get the word out about what we are doing.”
The goal of adding more events and festivals, Dershem said, is to keep people coming to the county year-round, not just during football season. For that reason, he said, hoteliers were largely supportive of the tax, which is collected from the visitors and guests who stay at their establishments. It’s based on the room rates set by hotels.
“They were the linchpin, if you will, in my decision to do this. Because if they didn’t see the value in this, and they saw it as a destructive force, then we wouldn’t have done it,” Dershem said. “But overwhelmingly, the whole hotel community said: ‘Yup, go for it; go out and promote. Let’s fill up those beds.’ ”