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LAWRENCE COUNTY Campground owner: Room tax would boost the tourist agency



Published: Sun, January 27, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



The proposal would bring in more than $60,000 to help the tourist promotion agency.

By LAURE CIOFFI

VINDICATOR NEW CASTLE BUREAU

NEW CASTLE, Pa. -- Fred Yeager isn't a proponent of new taxes, but he believes there is one that might just help his business.

Yeager, owner of the Rose Point Park Camp Ground in Slippery Rock Township, Lawrence County, is hoping county officials approve a 3-percent room tax for all motels, hotels, bed and breakfasts and rental cabins in the county to help fund the ailing county Tourist Promotion Agency.

"Taxes are never a good idea, but promoting the county is. I've seen what the TPA has been able to do for my business and that's why I support it," Yeager said.

Vote expected: Lawrence County commissioners are expected to vote Tuesday on the proposal, which is estimated to bring in about $61,000 per year in revenue for the county tourist promotion agency.

TPA director JoAnn McBride said the extra cash is sorely needed.

"Right now we are unable to answer all requests for information that come into our office through other advertising. We don't have enough money for postage to do that," she said.

The tourist promotion agency has an annual budget of about $140,000, but recently agreed to take a $15,000 cut in the county funding to help commissioner's balance the 2002 county general fund budget, she said.

"It's a gamble we are taking," she said of the reduced funding and the hope that commissioner's will approve the new tax. "You have to take a gamble to try to get ahead," she added.

Other counties that have added the tax say it has been successful.

In Mercer County: Neighboring Mercer County generated $252,698 in the last year from a 2-percent tax on its 1,000 hotel and motel rooms, said Peggy Mazyck, director of the Mercer County Visitor and Convention Bureau.

"It was something that we needed. For many years we existed on a shoestring budget and it was very difficult to do effective promotion," she said.

That money has helped promote county tourism with a professionally done Web site, an additional full-time staff member and more direct-mail campaigns designed to attract visitors Mercer County, she said.

Before the tax was instituted, Mazyck was the only full-time staff person in the office and much of their work had to be done in-house.

"We existed on a budget of less than $100,000. I thought we did an outstanding job with the resources we had, but we constantly were stretching ourselves and trying to make do," she said.

Mercer officials are considering increasing the room tax to 3 percent, she said.

Mazyck said the revenue brought in by the tax illustrates that tourism is up in the county, for at least one month.

Money collected in October 2001 from the room tax was about $5,000 more than what was collected in October 2000, the first month it was collected, she said.

"Given the economy, we probably should have seen an decrease, but we've been doing extensive promotion of our hotels and radio campaigns," she said.

State officials say the tax is likely helping increase tourism statewide.

Became a law: All counties were given the ability to institute the room tax in December 2000 when Gov. Tom Ridge signed state Bill 1154 into law. Before that time, each county had to individually lobby the state legislator for permission.

Larger counties such as Allegheny, Erie and Philadelphia have had the room tax for decades, but only recently had midsized counties such as Mercer and others lobbied for the designation, said Fritz Smith, Pennsylvania deputy secretary for tourism, film and economic development marketing.

There are about 34 counties in the state who have the tax. Smith said they generated a total of about $21 million last year for the local promotion agencies.

"What it has enabled them to do is have a healthy revenue stream and enabled them to address new markets. Typically they will be able to hire more staff and go to more trade shows to promote their areas," he said of those who have increased revenue for the room tax.

In Butler County: That's what Butler County officials are hoping to accomplish with the 3-percent room tax recently enacted there. Officials started collecting the tax Jan. 1, said Gary Pinkerton, the county's interim tourist promotion agency director.

"Tourist promotion efforts have struggled in the past because of lack of funding. [The room tax money] is going to basically be used to promote our attractions like Moraine State Park, Penn's Colony, steam engine shows and the Big Butler Fair," he said. They expect to generate between $300,000 and $400,000 from the tax, he said.

Lawrence County officials say they only expect to generate a fraction of that amount from the county's 345 rental rooms, but the money made should help increase tourism and the economy.

Lawrence County Commissioner Brian Burick said he favors the tax.

"I like it in the sense that its almost like a user fee. A lot of things [in other counties] are funded by these room taxes; we are hoping the same thing applies here. Having the money to better promote the county will generate increased overnight stays and benefit the Lawrence County economy," he said.

The proposed room tax will not be charged to those who are staying in motels after being displaced by some disaster, such as a fire, or those who live for more than 30 consecutive days in a hotel, motel, rental cabin or bed and breakfast.

If approved, the 3-percent room tax will go into effect Feb. 15 in Lawrence County.




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