WCCBI chief discusses tourism role in county

(Editor’s Note: The following letter was written by Jim Decker, executive director of the Warren County Chamber of Business and Industry, to his executive board discussing the WCCBI becoming the county’s Tourism Promotion Agency.)

By JAMES DECKER

WCCBI President/CEO

On September 25, the Warren County Commissioners unanimously adopted Resolution # 3018 which names the Warren County Chamber of Business & Industry (WCCBI) as the Recognized Tourism Promotion Agency for Warren County effective January 1, 2014. This designation is currently held by the Warren County Visitors Bureau (WCVB).

It is appropriate that questions exist as to the impact this decision will have on the promotion of tourism within Warren County and how the WCCBI intends to fulfill the obligations inherent in holding the designation. This article is intended to address these questions.

The most significant impact of Resolution #3018 relates to the distribution of funding developed through the levy of a Hotel Bed Tax within the County. State Law mandates that Counties who have elected to impose such a tax shall collect the tax from appropriate lodging facilities on a monthly or quarterly basis and pass these funds, less a defined administrative fee, to the Recognized Tourism Promotion Agency in that County. Thus, these fees, which have been received by WCVB since the adoption of the bed tax in Warren County roughly 10 years ago will, effective with taxes paid by patrons beginning January 1, 2014 then be paid to the WCCBI.

Along with Resolution #3018, the Commissioners also approved a Memorandum of Understanding between the Warren County and the WCCBI which imposes on the WCCBI the mandates of the Act of July 4, 2008, P.L. 621, No. 50, known as the Tourism Promotion Act, including the following specific and exclusive allowable uses:

a) Convention promotion;

b) Marketing the area served by the agency as a leisure travel destination;

c) Marketing the area served by the agency as a business travel destination;

d) Using all appropriate marketing tools to accomplish these purposes, including but not limited to, advertising, publicity, publications, direct marketing, direct sales and participation in industry trade shows;

e) Projects or programs that are directly and substantially related to tourism within the county, augment and do not unduly compete with private sector tourism efforts and improve and expand the county as a destination market;

f) Any other tourism marketing or promotion program deemed necessary by the recognized tourism promotion agency.

Also mandated by the Memorandum of Understanding is the requirement that WCCBI provide to the County Commissioners on an annual basis an audited report on the income and expenditures incurred during the prior year on all revenues acquired by WCCBI as the Recognized Tourism Promotion Agency.

The WCCBI accepts and acknowledges each of these obligations and will operate in full compliance with them.

The next step in completing this change is obtaining concurrence with the Commissioners’ decision by municipalities representing 51% of the population of the County. The Commissioners have sent letters requesting this support to each municipality across the County. This element is a requirement of the Tourism Promotion Act of Pennsylvania.

As stated by Commissioner Vanco at the COG meeting on October 2, the WCCBI and WCVB were approached by the Commissioners shortly after his taking office with a directive to work together to develop a more efficient and effective tourism promotion structure which would capitalize upon shared resources, minimize administrative expenses and maximize the positive impact of the Bed Tax dollars. The Commissioners made it clear that they did not believe funding two tourist promotion agencies was an efficient use of capital and tax dollars. The Commissioners met many times with representatives of both organizations over the last 18 months. Over the course of 2012, several merger agreements were developed between the two agencies but none were found to be acceptable to the WCVB board of directors.

The focus of the WCCBI in preparing to assume the responsibility as Recognized Tourism Promotion Agency effective January 1 will be completion of the following:

a) Complete a review/evaluation of the current WCVB activities and marketing initiatives as well as the current Council on Tourism (COT) activities and events and develop a Strategic Plan for Tourism Development with specific goals and objectives for 12 and 24 month milestones

b) Develop Operating Procedures for the Tourism Division of WCCBI, also known as the Council on Tourism (COT).

c) Establish a Tourism Development Committee which shall assist with the implementation and attainment of the goals and objectives developed in the Strategic Plan.

d) Evaluate the WCCBI internet site and modify as necessary to appropriately address the expanded needs of tourism promotion and activity. Evaluate, refine and develop as necessary Warren County social media sites including Facebook, Pinterest, 4-Square and Twitter in recognition that a trend in tourism includes the use of technology and Social Media in travel planning and interaction.

e) Begin development of a comprehensive package of print materials including a Membership Directory, Visitors Guide and map product.

At this time the future of the Visitors Center rests solely with the WCVB board of directors. As an independent corporate entity the WCVB owns this property exclusively. During the development of the proposed merger agreements, the WCCBI committed to accepting ownership of this property as well as assumption of appropriate debt associated with the facility and the operations thereof. We remain willing to do so.

Should the WCVB board elect to transfer these assets and liabilities, it will be necessary to complete a thorough assessment of the overall operations, responsibilities and facilities of the WCCBI to determine the most effective and efficient use of these facilities in housing of staff and providing appropriate service to all of our constituents.

The focus of all WCCBI efforts will be to minimize administrative expense and maximize the available resources to promote economic growth across all sectors of our local economy. A marriage of tourism marketing with residential and employment and business recruitment initiatives will not only improve the level of tourist trade to the community but will also expose these tourists to the ongoing opportunities to live and work in our community.

Since its formation in 2003, The WCCBI has become well known for the multi-day events developed and administered, having been consistently involved in this sector of tourism development. While we will continue to focus on this method of tourism attraction we recognize that events alone will not provide a level of consistent traffic into our community to support existing hospitality sector businesses nor promote development of additional opportunities in this market. We must collectively work to expand our offerings for year-round travel to Warren County through projects such as the hiking and biking trails, and the trails at Jakes Rocks development, as well as expanded promotion and support of our local arts and cultural offerings such as The Struthers Library Theatre, The Crary Gallery, The Artist Co-Op in Youngsville, and the Johnny Appleseed Festival in Sheffield.

The WCCBI recognizes the current and potential positive impact tourism has on our local economy as well as our “quality of life” in Warren County. We are committed to serving as good stewards of the Hotel Bed Tax revenues and will uphold not only the letter but also the spirit of the Tourist Promotion Law of Pennsylvania.