Visitors Bureau decries decision

The Warren County Visitors Bureau has taken swift action in response to the announcement that it would not be the county’s tourism promotion agency next year.

On Wednesday, the Warren County Commissioners approved the Warren County Chamber of Business and Industry (WCCBI) as the tourism promotion agency (TPA).

The visitors bureau held a meeting Thursday evening to discuss the change.

And, on Friday, the group issued an announcement and a request for help.

The designated TPA receives the hotel occupancy tax dollars collected in the county. The visitors bureau depends on that 3 percent tax on hotel rooms. “Other than membership dues, our entire operating budget is based on that tax, as we do not receive any state or county funding to operate, and therefore, it would effectively shut us down,” Board President Karen Sobkowski wrote in a letter distributed Friday to bureau members.

“We were stunned by this as WCCBI, as an interested party, was included in the meeting,” Sobkowski wrote. “We, as the other interested party, were not included. In fact, it came as an enormous surprise to us as we were not told it was on their agency, and no one from the commissioners’ office even advised us about the resolution after it was passed.”

“We are writing to ask for your support,” she said. “Our board of directors unanimously agree we must try to stop this from happening by asking the commissioners to reverse their decision. We are well aware this will only be considered if there is a considerable amount of public support for a reversal.”

In announcing their decision to name WCCBI the new TPA, the commissioners mentioned some events run by the chamber. The bureau wants the public to know that WCCBI is not the only organization promoting events and tourism in general.

“We at the Warren County Visitors Bureau have consistently and firmly stated to the commissioners that we feel all county events need to be recognized, and not merely those hosted by the WCCBI,” Sobkowski wrote. “We have always offered assistance to all area event planners in helping with promotion, email blasts, etc. For the last three years we have hosted a gathering for event planners at the Hampton Inn so that everyone could share ideas, dates, etc., and to offer our assistance with these events.”

The bureau advertises the county’s selling-points, publishes a visitors guide, and maintains a website including an interactive map of points of interest in the county. “Some of our forward thinking ideas include bringing multiple-day tour buses to our area, something we found last year to be very popular after working with a group for a three-night, four-day tour with stops at local businesses, places of interest, restaurants, etc, and also a ‘Special Needs Geotrail’,” Sobkowski wrote. “We are always looking for new and unique ways to draw attention to our area and to bring new visitors here for what we hope to be multiple days. As the consistent increase in room tax reflects that people are staying additional room nights in area hotels, it is working.”

“Our board is comprised of volunteers all tied in some way to the local tourism industry,” she wrote. “Because of this, we understand what visitors expect and what changes we need to make to bring visitors in to the area. Our goal is, and has been, to promote sustainable tourism.”

She expressed a lack of confidence in WCCBI doing the same with the hotel bed dollars – a total of $113,000 to $150,000 a year recently.

“We fear if this change is made, the hotel occupancy tax dollars will now go toward salary and inflated overhead at WCCBI, rather than toward the actual promotion of tourism,” Sobkowski wrote.

The commissioners asked WCCBI President and CEO Jim Decker about audits and controls on those dollars. “There are state regulations on how these dollars must be spent,” Commissioner Stephen Vanco said.

“These are dollars which are to be utilized for tourist promotion,” Commissioner John Bortz said.

“We will have all of the tourism-related funds in a separate account,” Decker said. That account will go through the required state audit procedure.

The commissioners also outlined their expectations for the new TPA in a memorandum of understanding to the WCCBI also approved at their regular meeting Wednesday.

The Visitors Center on Route 6 in Starbrick could be another casualty of the change. “With our facility on Route 6, we serve the traveling public by promoting the unique assets in our area, and by offering a warm welcome to new visitors,” she wrote. “By eliminating our funding, they are effectively shutting down the center.”

The visitors bureau, a tax-exempt 501(c)(6) organization, owns the building, which was completed in 2003.

Decker said the WCCBI has had discussions about the building, but any decision is up to the visitors bureau.

Sen. Scott Hutchinson (R-21st) has his Warren County office in the visitors center.

Sobkowski could not be reached for additional comment including on the future of the building, those occupying space in it, and the bureau’s employees.