Amid Revenue Downturn, Adventure Bureau Awards Nearly $400,000 in Tourism Grants
Each June, the Happy Valley Adventure Bureau would typically award a full slate of grants to nonprofits and businesses for tourism-related initiatives. But as with most things during the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 is far from typical.
Still, HVAB on Thursday announced $387,300 in grants to 44 applicants in what president and CEO Fritz Smith said is the first round of awards. An additional 10 applications will be considered for funding in November.
A record 61 requests from 56 organizations totaling $1.4 million were submitted.
"It goes without saying that this has been an across-the-board challenging year for the HVAB and its members," Smith said. "The shutdown, combined with the cancelation of major events and the still uncertain future of others has significantly impacted our lodging industry and with it, vital tourism promotion revenue streams."
HVAB is funded by Centre County's hotel occupancy tax, with a portion of that money going each year to tourism grants. In 2019, Centre County commissioners voted to increase the tax from 2.5 percent to 5 percent. Last year, when $725,000 in tourism grants were awarded, it was expected that close to $1 million would be handed out in 2020.
Then the pandemic hit, canceling events, closing attractions and delivering a sizable hit to the travel industry. Smith said about $4 million in hotel tax revenue has been collected in the past year, and that was on track to be $5 million before COVID-19. In April, revenues were down 92 percent.
"We were doing quite well up until March," Smith said to a socially distanced and masked audience during a press conference outside the Centre County Visitors Center. "March and April’s collections are really what kind of diminished the resources."
Smith and the rest of the afternoon's speakers expressed optimism about the ability for the the local tourism industry to rebound and applauded how organizations and businesses have adjusted to find new ways of making Centre County appealing.
"We have 100 percent confidence that the nonprofits and organizations that have been the fabric of the tourism community here in Centre County will rise to the challenge and are rising to the challenge," Centre County Board of Commissioners Chair Michael Pipe said. "We do not know how long this pandemic will last but the love we have for Centre County, there’s nothing that can take that away."
The county received nearly $15 million in funding through the state from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which can be used toward tourism-related business, among other purposes. Pipe said the county is working with the bureau to determine the best way to support its member businesses affected by the pandemic.
Fellow Commissioner Mark Higgins said a number of the grants support outdoor attractions that are appropriate for a time of social distancing. For example, CentreBike received $7,000 for a project to move road biking maps online for wider use and easier updating, while Nittany Mountain Biking Association received $15,000 for the Harvest Fields multi-use trails project in Boalsburg. Friends of Rothrock received $15,000 to continue upgrades to mountain bike and hiking trails in Rothrock State Forest.
"I always felt one of the best ways to increase tourism in Centre County is to stress outdoor active adult attractions, activities such as road cycling, mountain biking, geocaching, hiking, kayaking," Higgins said. "A lot of our facilities and the structure of the landscape is world-class for that. These activities attract visitors and can be done outside during a pandemic."
Four grant recipients spoke about their projects, including two who discussed how they are adapting to the circumstances of the pandemic.
State College Borough will use its $1,000 grant to develop an interactive, 360-degree virtual tour of the Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza on South Fraser Street. Completed in 2017, the MLK Plaza features bricks and other markers that highlight important dates in King's life and the civil rights movement. The virtual tour will allow visitors to click on markers to learn more.
The plaza has hosted a number of multicultural events over the past three years, including State College's first Juneteenth celebration last week. Douglas Shontz, assistant to the borough manager, said the initial idea was to create more traditional marketing materials to make residents and visitors more aware of the plaza and its significance, but when the pandemic struck, borough staff and plaza committee volunteers moved to develop the interactive website.
Douglas Shontz, assistant to the borough manager of State College, speaks at the announcement of HVAB's 2020 tourism grant awards on June 25, 2020 at the Centre County Visitors Center. Photo by Geoff Rushton| StateCollege.com
"Since the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza opened in 2017 in downtown State College it has been the host to many community events that have inspired and educated our community on diversity, equity and inclusion," Shontz said. "The plaza has truly lived up to its mission in keeping Dr. King's legacy alive in State College. [The borough] is excited to receive this grant to help spread the word about the plaza and become an educational space online."
The Centre County Farmland Trust will use its $5,000 grant to help create mini-tours that showcase the region's farms and agritourism sites. Jennifer Shuey, president of the CCFT board of directors, said the idea partly grew from the realization that the trust wouldn't be able to hold its usual summer Centre County Farm Tour.
"The Centre County Farmland Trust is excited to be partnering with the Happy Valley Adventure Bureau to put a new spin on our annual Centre County Farm Tour, where folks can get to know the hands and lands that feed us," Shuey said. "We will be highlighting several self-guided and drivable farm routes around the county to showcase just some of our beautiful and productive farms, delicious farm-to-table eateries, bountiful farmers markets and more."
Jennifer Shuey, president of the Centre County Farmland Trust board of directors, speaks at the announcement of HVAB's 2020 tourism grant awards on June 25, 2020 at the Centre County Visitors Center. Photo by Geoff Rushton| StateCollege.com
Shuey added that connecting people with local agriculture helps extend the CCFT mission of preserving farmlands for the future.
"In order to do that we need a supportive community that buys local, that understands the importance of those lands, that experiences the beauty and the bounty of those lands and that works together to make sure those resources are available for us in generations to come," she said.
The Moshannon Valley Veterans' Memorial received $1,000 to help purchase five highway signs to raise awareness about the memorial among visitors and those traveling through the Philipsburg area.
The black marble memorial, located just outside Philipsburg in Rush Township, was dedicated in 2008 and it includes the names of more than 500 service men and women from the Moshannon Valley who were killed in action from World War I through the present. On the back are the names of thousands of veterans who also donated to build the memorial.
"It has become a rallying point and source of immense pride for our veterans and our community," said Allen Webster, vice president of the memorial committee. "This grant will help us perpetuate the sense of pride and patriotism to others in our community and visitors from outside the area as well."
A $5,000 grant will help fund the completion and marketing of The Crooked House, a public sculpture that will be the focal point of Homecoming Park in Milesburg. The Crooked House is a full-scale sculptural casting of the façade of Abigale Miles’ 1857 home in central Milesburg. Artist Benjamin Fehl is currently constructing it off-site, with plans to hold formal public events after pandemic restrictions ease.
Fehl, who is creative director for The Crooked House's recently registered nonprofit corporation, said it's important for the arts in Centre County outside of the State College area to be recognized as part of the whole community.
“We are very grateful for this recognition and assistance from the Happy Valley Adventure Bureau,” he said. “The Crooked House is one of many culturally valuable local arts organizations that constitute an important part of life in Centre County. Through the availability of live performances, gallery shows and public installations like ours, Centre County residents enjoy a rich cultural life. This award acknowledges the importance of the arts in drawing many visitors to our region.”
Edward Tubbs, chairman of the HVAB board of directors, said grant recipients — including 16 applicants who are new to the program or returning after more than a year's absence — represent a wide range of projects from all corners of the county.
"This year's recipients include an interesting array of initiatives and events that collectively speak to the broad appeal of Happy Valley's assets and attractions," he said. "I want to thank all grant recipients for their ongoing contributions to a quality of life that resonates with residents and visitors alike."
Smith said the "resourceful and resilient" Centre County community will bounce back from the current downturn and the grant program is one way to help get there.
Centre County Commissioner Steve Dershem said the current circumstances are an opportunity for the county to reinvent itself to some extent, by protecting businesses and organizations of all kinds and further advancing the region's plentiful outdoor activities that can be enjoyed during the pandemic.
"Maybe not tomorrow or any time soon, but we will be at a point where we’re back and we’re back to enjoying indoor and outdoor activities," he said. "I’d like to think this money is going to sustain many of those businesses so we can do just that."