Carrie Lepore wants everyone to want to come to Pennsylvania.
When you are the Department of Community and Economic Development’s deputy secretary for marketing and tourism, that is your job. You do everything you can to get the message out that the Keystone State is the place to come for road trips and family vacations, and girls’ weekends and romantic getaways.
According to the U.S. Travel Association, the American tourism industry is an engine that generates about $2.3 trillion, and $248.2 billion of that goes into the paychecks of the people who make tourism happen. In Pennsylvania, it’s a leading industry, resulting in $39.2 billion spent in a state that boasts two NFL teams, two MLB teams, two NHL teams, an NBA team, the country’s largest chocolate factory with its very own theme park, the Steel City, the City of Brotherly Love and the third-largest stadium in the world.
At one time, the battery that powered that engine was a $30 million marketing budget. Today it’s $3.9 million. Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget proposes a boost to $10 million. The Republican counterproposal would drop it to $2.5 million.
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For perspective, that’s $200,000 less than Bellefonte received from the state for the waterfront project. It’s less money than Centre County has given out in its 15 years of annual tourism grants generated by a tax on area hotel stays.
At the same time, surrounding states are upping their advertising game. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a $55 million marketing investment in October 2016. In Virginia, a $7 million budget includes a campaign aimed at attracting LGBT travelers.
According to the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, money spent on tourism marketing is a guaranteed return. A recent report said every $1 invested in marketing yields $3.43 in tax revenue, and cuts between 2009 and 2014 resulted in a 16 percent decrease in day trips and 17 percent loss in overnight tourism from surrounding states. Overseas travelers dropped even more, about 24 percent. The total loss equaled $24 million, according to the PRLA.
“This is an investment,” Lepore said. “This is revenue realized in real time.”
She’s hoping a new campaign will drive that home. The state is going to fight back against “I Love New York” and “Virginia is for Lovers” with “Pennsylvania: Pursue Your Happiness.” A new logo shows the words curved in a smile.
Centre County is part of those pursuits. Penn State adds to the state’s tourism pull, with the famous statistic of Happy Valley population growing to become the third-largest city in Pennsylvania on Nittany Lion football weekends. Then there are the other occasions that Penn State draws traffic, such as move-in weekend, graduation weekend, homecoming and more, all of which have the opportunity to sell visitors on other tourism opportunities, such as local outdoor experiences, bed and breakfasts, history, wineries and restaurants.
“The only thing that is missing is the investment,” Lepore said.
The problem is that money is in short supply. The governor and legislature are once again trying to hammer out a spending plan despite differing priorities and perspectives. In 2015, it was a pitched battle that dragged into spring 2016 with no budget.
“This state’s fiscal situation requires that difficult decisions will need to be made when it comes to prioritizing the taxpayer money we have to spend,” said Jennifer Kocher, spokeswoman for state Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Benner Township. “The House has made cuts to many programs as part of their budget plan. The Senate continues to evaluate all of the House’s budget proposals including tourism. Budget negotiations are ongoing and all options for funding programs are on the table.”