Tourism grants bridge businesses, provide boost to Centre County nonprofits

Philip Vonada, the office manager at the State College Community Theatre, snapped a photo as a news conference began Wednesday morning inside the light-soaked exhibit area of the Centre County/Penn State Visitor Center.

Bowing his head, he smiled when Mark Higgins, one of the county’s commissioners, pointed him out.

“We have young people like Phil who don’t just wear one hat,” Higgins told the crowd. “They wear multiple hats and they’re doing what they can to improve the quality of life in the region.”

A map of the county stretched between them on the floor, with representatives from 33 local nonprofits standing around its borders. Each received financial aid totaling $341,638 from the annual tourism grant project arranged by the Centre County Board of Commissioners and the Central Pennsylvania Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Vonada, who is starring in the theater’s production of “The Drowsy Chaperone” in June, is working with other local businesses to promote tourism within the county. He and the theater’s team will use the $5,000 grant announced Wednesday for various marketing and advertising campaigns, besides forging partnerships with hotels and restaurants. In the show’s production of “The Wedding Singer” in February, for instance, the theater partnered with Rotelli State College to put together a package for showgoers.

For Vonada, dinner, naturally, goes with a show. Receiving a grant helps the final curtain follow the final course.

“It’s wonderful to be an organization of our size, which is relatively small, to be receiving a grant alongside somebody like Centre County Grange Fair, where they said they’d bring in $2.3 million to the economy,” Vonada said. “So it’s great that this grant recognizes not just the huge companies, but also smaller companies like us and the (State College) Choral Society and Lemont (Village Association) and the things that our smaller organizations also do for the county. The size of our grant might look small to some organizations, but for us it’s a huge impact.”

The grants, which are funded through the Centre County lodging tax, began in 2002 and have provided more than $3.2 million to local nonprofits. The CPCVB and the commissioners received applications from a record 41 organizations.

“This was a banner year,” CPCVB Executive Director Betsey Howell said. “Typically we’ve given away $200,000 or so.”

Other recipients included the Bryce Jordan Center, Centre County Library and Historical Museum, Columbus Chapel and Boal Mansion, Moshannon Valley EMS/Philipsburg Heritage Days and the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture.

The arts in the region also received a boost. Apart from the State College Community Theatre, the Bellefonte Art Museum for Centre County, the Art Alliance of Central PA, Penn State Centre Stage, State Theatre Inc., the Center for the Performing Arts, Nittany Valley Symphony Inc. and the Pennsylvania Centre Orchestra also received grants. The largest grant given, which totaled $40,000, went to the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts.

Most of the organizations will use the grants for marketing and advertising purposes. Some, however, will use the funding for capital improvement, or projects and renovations designed to improve visitors’ experiences.

Kevin Abbey, the land conservation manager for ClearWater Conservancy, said the organization’s $7,500 grant will help build signs alongside Spring Creek that relay its history and importance to the region. As hikers pass by, they’ll be able to learn about Philip Benner, a general during the American Revolution who founded an industrial center and an iron forge in the late 18th century.

“That’s a story we’re looking forward to telling,” Abbey said.

Known for its fishing spots, Spring Creek is the most popular trout-fishing stream in the state by a factor of more than 20, Abbey added.

On the map spread out across the floor, Vonada stood a few feet away from the creek’s chalky likeness. To his left and right, he recognized several others who were also involved in more than one of the organizations represented there. He and Higgins, for instance, knew each other through the Centre County Grange Encampment and Fair.

“It’s nice to get all the organizations working together in little ways,” Vonada said. “This year we’re going to be performing at the arts fest and the People’s Choice Festival through the theater, so it’s nice to keep those partnerships going. This grant helps us do that.”

Higgins said the CPCVB and commissioners allocated about 98 percent of the available funds this year.

When Vonada’s show opens in June, Higgins will be there. Margaret, his wife, plays one of the show’s main characters.

“It’s fun to see everyone coming together,” Higgins said. “This is about quality of life for Centre County.”

Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy