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Franklin County tourism rebounds

Written by Jim Hook, Public Opinion Online | Feb 16, 2016 6:00 PM
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Brenda Heege cake competed under the professional category during the Icing on the Cake competitive cake decorating contest inside Capitol Theatre Wood center during IceFest on Saturday, Jan. 30, 2015 in Chambersburg, Pa. The cakes were on display to the public.  (Noelle Haro-Gomez/Public Opinion)

(Chambersburg) -- Franklin County is making a name for itself as its travel and tourism industry continues to grow.

Room tax revenues grew by more than 10 percent in 2015, a year after tourism receipts surpassed pre-Recession levels for the first time.

"We are a destination," said Janet Pollard, of the non-profit Franklin County Visitors Bureau. "We are no longer a bedroom community for Gettysburg. We are a small cultural heritage destination."

People come to Franklin County for its Civil War heritage, festivals, sports and scenery.

Visitors spend more than $320 million a year in the county, according to the Department of Community and Economic Development. Over the past decade the county has been promoting its own heritage.

"It's not a sprint, but a marathon to make Franklin County a more well-rounded destination," Pollard said. "We are more of an experiential destination where we have a variety of experiences."

The county also has taken a larger role in promoting itself. No longer part of a larger tourism promotion agency, the county visitors' bureau since 2002 has relied on the room, or pillow, tax. A hotel guest pays the 3 percent county tax when he or she rents a room.

The county so far has collected $667,000 in room taxes, up from $610,442 in 2014, according to Franklin County Commissioner David Keller.

Prior to the Recession, room tax receipts had peaked at about $555,000.

The visitors' bureau, no longer a county agency, is growing tourism without benefit of state grants, according to Pollard. The last state tourism grant came six years ago and helped the county set up 30 kiosks where visitors can use their smart phones to read QR codes about local destinations and events.

"We do have a target audience -- a lot younger audience," Pollard said. "People enjoy coming because of scenic beauty. A lot of 30 somethings are interested in scenic beauty."

The Civil War is still the top draw.

Chambersburg has found a way to cash in on being the lone Northern town to be burned during the Civil War without duplicating the event. An annual laser light show at the courthouse draws families to downtown Chambersburg.

The eastern part of the county is telling the story of Pennsylvania's second largest battle of the Civil War, the Battle of Monterey Pass on the Confederate retreat from Gettysburg. Because of recent efforts in Washington Township, visitors can step onto the battlefield and visit a small museum.

Woven into these main events are lesser known stories of the Civil War -- Gen. Robert E. Lee's decision to go to Gettysburg, John Brown meeting Frederick Douglass, the Underground Railroad and inventor Joseph Winter.

"We're synchronizing our messages more," Pollard said. "That's the key to growing."

More information online encourages more exchange from people who may stop by for a visit.

About 5,000 people work in the local tourism and travel industry, according to the state Department of labor and Industry. Employment (4,800 jobs) was off  by about 500 jobs in December as warm weather postponed skiing at Whitetail Resort in Mercersburg.

The local industry still includes overnight bookings at local motels for Civil War event in Gettysburg and Carlisle car shows. Canadian tourists and bus drivers also break at the end of a day before continuing south on Interstate 81.

But travel includes many other local, minor events. There are harvest festivals and IceFest.

Families and athletes book rooms for local tournaments in softball, soccer and tennis. Waynesboro and Chambersburg have encouraged the development of their respective art communities.

People living in the New York and Baltimore-Washington metro areas have shown an interest in visiting the county, but "most people who visit Pennsylvania are Pennsylvanians themselves," Pollard said.

The visitors' bureau sent a package about local fishing to a Louisiana man, she said.

"He said he was coming here to fish," Pollard said. "I'm sure he's a trout fisherman. That one knocked my socks off."

Jim Hook, 717-262-4759


This article is part of a content-sharing partnership between Public Opinion Online and WITF. 

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