Visitors Bureau Defends Itself

The Warren County Visitors Bureau is fighting for its very existence.

Members of the board of directors have been attending municipal meetings all over the county since they heard the September news that the Warren County Commissioners had named the Warren County Chamber of Business and Industry as the county’s official tourism promotion agency (TPA) for 2014.

“We’re going to pretty much all the township meetings,” Bureau board of directors past president Jim Roth said. “We’re trying to tell them what we do.”

The commissioners have asked the municipalities to vote on the change. According to the Tourism Promotion Agency Act of 2008, the tourism promotion agency change must be approved by municipalities representing more than half of the population of the county.

The change in the TPA designation would result in the Hotel Occupancy Tax dollars going to WCCBI instead of WCVB.

According to financial information provided by Sobkowski, the 2012-2013 hotel occupancy taxes of $133,603.80 represented about 87 percent of the bureau’s revenue.

Would that mean the closure of the visitors center in Starbrick? “Certainly,” Roth said. “That would be the end of that building.”

Closing the building would be unprecedented. “No county has done this,” Sobkowski said. “The idea of the 3 percent tax was so the visitors center would be supported.”

The bureau owns the building and uses it as collateral against a $50,000 line of credit through Northwest Savings Bank, Sobkowski said.

On Thursday, Roth and board president Karen Sobkowski spoke with the Times Observer.

They said they feel like they’ve been treated unfairly and inconsistently by the commissioners.

Discussions about merging WCVB with WCCBI began in 2011, at the direction of the commissioners, according to Sobkowski. “There was no forewarning.”

Those continued through mid-2012, reaching the point of written merger proposals being exchanged.

The parties could not agree on the merger details, she said.

She said the board was told the “straw that broke the camel’s back” with respect to changing the TPA designation was the board’s unwillingness to increase the occupancy tax.

Sobkowski said the commissioners asked the board in April 2012 for its support in raising the tax from 3 percent to 6 percent.

The group wanted some justification, Sobkowski said.

Without it, “we would not support a 3 percent bed tax increase,” Roth said.

The volunteer board is made up of people who work in the hospitality industry – including lodging and golf courses.

“This money has to be set aside and used for tourism,” she said. “Salaries are part of that. I’d hate to see those dollars get swallowed up.”

Sobkowski said the board has tried to nail down why the commissioners voted to change the TPA designation. “They would only say ‘administrative efficiency’,” she said.

“We feel we’re being efficient,” Sobkowski said. “Our salaries are 33 percent” of expenditures. “We’re taking care of that building.” The taxes on the building run about $8,700 per year.

The bureau has not had an executive director since the departure of Mike Olewine in late June, 2012. Operations Supervisor Teri Murphy has been the employee with the most responsibility in the organization since then.

Sobkowski and Roth said they are very pleased with Murphy’s performance, including saving the organization about 50 percent in the creation of the bureau’s Visitors Guide.

The mission of the bureau is to “assume a leadership role to stimulate and support tourism and economic growth in Warren County, the Pennsylvania Wilds and Northwest Pennsylvania through education, promotion, marketing and cooperative and regional partnerships to increase overnight stays.”

In addition to the guide, the bureau cites its interactive map, the operation of the visitors center, collaborating with other tourism agencies in the region, and working with event planners to publicize their activities, as some of its main promotion efforts.

Sobkowski said the accusation that the visitors center is not open on weekends is a “fallacy.” She said the center has been open through the summer, at least Memorial Day through Labor Day, each of the last two years.

“Sustainable tourism is what we’re trying to achieve,” Roth said.