Tourist bureau celebrates 50th anniversary
September 26, 2013 10:59 AM
by HEATHER BLAKE

It started with a handful of members and virtually no funding.

It’s gone through several name changes, meeting and office locations and has seen close to 20 executive directors at its helm.

And 50 years later, thanks to the commitment and hard work of its staff, board of directors, volunteers and members of the community, the Indiana County Tourist Bureau is still going strong to promote the region’s unique character and attractions.

It started in 1962, when members of a tourism subcommittee of the Overall Economic Development Program met and started the idea of developing a Tourist Promotion Agency, for which they sought approval from the county commissioners.

In May 1963, the Indiana County Chamber of Commerce backed the idea of tourist promotion for the county, with a new bureau attempting to produce brochures and other materials to encourage county tourism, according to an Indiana Evening Gazette article.

In June 1963, a public meeting was called by the Tourist Promotion Bureau Committee of the county’s chamber of commerce. At that time, Indiana was one of only seven counties in Pennsylvania that didn’t have a tourist promotion bureau, according to a June 1963 article in The Indiana Evening Gazette.

Touting the notion that tourism is big business in areas where development and promotion are adequately carried out, those presiding at the meeting provided input on why a tourist bureau for Indiana County would be beneficial.

One such benefit, according to a member of the Cambria County Tourist Council, who said their group was experiencing the success of tourism in their area, was the fact that “tourists are conditioned to spend,” paying their own way “with fresh money” without demanding services a typical resident of the community would have, such as schools, streets and utilities.

Some of the groundwork for the development of a tourism bureau had already been done by members of the county committee. One member, Leona Potter, was hopeful that tourist promotion might help to lessen the high rate of dependency that placed the county fifth in dependency in Pennsylvania, according to the article.

Roy Fleming, who was president of the Indiana County Christmas Tree Growers Association, cited increasing success of the group’s Candlestick Tours in the first three years of its promotion.

Tourists also were coming to the area to view the site of the Keystone Power Plant near Shelocta, though construction hadn’t yet begun, Isadore Lenglet, the county planner at the time, said at the meeting.

It was at that meeting where it was determined the committee should request approval from the commissioners for the formation of the bureau so the county could begin applying for matching state funds for tourist promotion.

From there, Indiana County officially had the Indiana County Tourist Promotion Council, whose general purpose statement was “to promote, provide, assist and develop reasonable and feasible events, projects, promotions, and activities of a tourist-promotional nature that will best serve the interest of the people of Indiana County,” according to information provided by the tourist bureau. Its name later changed to the Indiana County Tourist Promotions Bureau.

The first meeting was held at the Public Assistance office, with a board of 19 directors and founders, including Potter, Fleming, Lenglet, Frances Helman, Frank Hood, Joe Donnelly, Pat Stapleton and Paul Wass. As of 1965, the bureau had its first record of nine members.

 

The Bureau appointed its first executive director, Ray Rodkey, in 1964. That same year, with the Junior Women’s Civic Club assisting the bureau and the Indiana County Christmas Tree Growers Association, the first Queen Evergreen, Linda Stalnecker, was crowned to reign over the very first Indiana County Christmas Tree Festival in May, kicking off a decades-long tradition that helped garner attention for the county.

“Queen Evergreen was a big drawing card,” said Jerry Boucher, the bureau’s executive director from 1968 to ’70 and again from 1971 to ’73. Queen Evergreen made an appearance at the first-ever Boardwalk Bowl in December 1968, in which the IUP football team played the University of Delaware in Atlantic City’s Convention Hall.

“We were the first to be a part of that,” Boucher said of the Boardwalk Bowl, which received a lot of media attention. “It was a big deal.”

A lot of promotion came along with Queen Evergreen’s coronation. She visited Harrisburg and attended farm shows, promoting the title as well as the county’s Christmas trees, even presenting trees to the governor, Boucher said. That eventually led to a tie-in with the Christmas tree growers, who “also wanted something to hang their hat on,” he said, and they started promoting Queen Evergreen as the Pennsylvania Christmas Tree Queen.

But “we got into a hassle with that because of the Christmas tree growers elsewhere in the state,” he said, adding that the bureau was able to get some of those growers on the board of directors.

Starting out in his position as executive director, Boucher — who also was president of the Indiana County Historical Society at the same time — was trying to build up some relationship between the constituents of the borough and Indiana County and trying to put together several things that could bring in some money “so it could end up being a paid position as executive director.” There were some “really tough times,” he said.

“Money was really tight at the time. The county was giving us no money (then),” he said. Boucher said he worked with most of the parents of the Queen Evergreens because they needed escorted on their trips around the state, and with no money to escort them, “I drove them in my car.”

“We had a big responsibility there, making sure the girls had good accommodations for eating and lodging,” he said.

 

Boucher and the bureau started out holding meetings at Ridge Lanes Bowling Alley, which he managed at the time (and has since become Beacon Manor), before finally acquiring an office on the third floor of the old county courthouse, which later became the NBOC headquarters.

The organization had help from “a lot of volunteers through the years, (and) had a lot of good people working on the board with us,” he said, mentioning the efforts of Wass; Fleming; Hood; Darrell Dean of Dean’s Diner; Ethel Orr, who later became the bureau’s executive director from 1975-82; and Keith States of States’ Rental. He also praised Larry Judge, who at the time was the sports information director for IUP and worked with the bureau on the Boardwalk Bowl, and to Ed Ruffner, who served as secretary “for almost every organization that existed back in those early days.”

“He was a member of every board that existed in Indiana,” Boucher said. “He was a big help.”

Boucher recalled one of the organization’s efforts to raise money for the agency. The bureau, along with the Indiana Jaycees, held a kite-flying contest on McCreary Farm Hill, he said.

“People from all over the country came in (to fly) kites,” Boucher said.

“When we started getting some attention, some money did start coming in” and the bureau was able to start promoting events, such as the Christmas tree festival in the spring, the National Campers & Hikers Convention, the Flaming Foliage Tour in the fall and the Candlestick Tours, a 33-mile tour to see the “candlestick” blooming of millions of Christmas trees on the county’s tree plantations. The tours played a part in the effort to boost Indiana County as the Christmas Tree Capital of the World, with the Christmas Tree Growers inviting visitors from all over the country for the event.

 

In time, Boucher and the tourist bureau were encouraged to combine efforts with other counties, and a six-county Region II Tourist Promotion Association consisting of Jefferson, Armstrong, Clarion, Clearfield, Indiana and Butler — or JACCI-B — was formed in the early 1970s. The unit would travel to different big shows in Harrisburg and surrounding areas, and even to travel shows in Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio, setting up an informational booth, with representatives from each county taking turns promoting their area’s campgrounds and other attractions.

“Muriel Ferringer, of Jefferson County, had gone to some shows earlier and convinced us we needed to do that, and it was very successful,” said Boucher, who was vice president of JACCI-B at that time.

Boucher credited his years in the public service business and volunteerism to Frances Strong Helman, who started the county’s historical society.

“She got me started years ago,” he said. “She was a great lady.”

Of his time with the bureau, Boucher said it “was a fun ride.”

“It was lots of activity and we were at the beginning of it,” he said. “I thank God every day for all those people that gave their time, money and energy for the tourist bureau, because we were a struggling bunch back in those days.”

“We spent a lot of money out of our own pockets, there’s no question,” he added. “My hat goes off to all those who helped pave the way to make the tourist bureau what it is today. It was a great bunch of people, and there’s not many of us left.”

 

For Patricia Scott, who ran the tourist bureau from 1984 to ’85, a lot of time was spent trying to maintain some of the bigger events and functions from previous years while operating on a tight budget.

“At that time, the budget was very tight, and I guess I used most of my energies to continue the activities in the past,” Scott said. “That was a lot of what we had to do at that time because with the tight budget, board members were concerned about having a regatta or sending Queen Evergreen to Harrisburg to the farm show.”

The regatta Scott referred to was the tourist bureau’s Boat Regatta, which started in 1977 as a sailboat race and expanded in 1978 to include a wide array of canoeing activities. In 1979, it added pontoon boat buoyed course racing, according to a June 1979 story in The Indiana Evening Gazette. The event became for many boaters the official kickoff of the summer boating season, drawing in boaters from all over western Pennsylvania.

“The regatta, the more costly events, were some of the things we tried to hold on to,” including taking Queen Evergreen to Harrisburg and other events,” she said.

Scott also spent her time at the bureau planning and conducting tours of the Keystone Generating Station, the first mine mouth generating station ever built, and for which the Keystone Overlook was started in 1967 to offer visitors a panoramic view of the power plant and its surroundings. The overlook was erected by Penelec and leased to the tourist bureau, and contained maps and pictures of the operations of the plant and other stations that made up the energy complex.

“We had international visitors, and that was always quite interesting,” Scott said.

In addition to giving tours of the power station to young and old from near and far, she worked with area schoolchildren, holding tours at the courthouse.

 

Scott also sought the efforts of IUP students in various ways. One was for the creation of the tourist bureau’s logo, through utilizing students in the art department to submit entries of their designs. The winning design, submitted by Kathy LeRoy, depicted a pair of hands in a handshake and the slogan “You’ve Got a Friend in Indiana,” and was used in the bureau’s 1985 fund drive and incorporated on bureau letterheads and business cards.

“That was interesting, and a nice partnering with IUP,” she said.

When Scott organized an open house for Ewing’s Mill to make more people aware of the 1820 water-powered grist mill along Route 422, the bureau used students from the hotel and restaurant management program to cater the event.

“I tried to become involved with IUP during that time period,” she said, adding that a number of the board members were from IUP, “so that was helpful.”

Because her time with the bureau was short and the budget was an issue — even with free office space through the county at the Silas M. Clark House at the historical society (where the bureau moved in 1976), and receiving state and county dollars — it was difficult to branch out, Scott said, which led to her working to continue maintaining and promoting familiar events.

“We took Christmas trees to the (state) House of Representatives, and we were involved in all the parades — the Veterans Day parade and IUP Homecoming, Homer City if they had something, anyone within the county,” she said.

One of her missions was promoting Indiana County and its history from within the county itself.

“Sometimes we don’t realize some of the interesting activities that are available to us because living here, we are so close to it,” she said.

“We were trying to make people aware of Indiana and some of the pleasant things we have going on here.”

 

The Tourist Bureau, which became the Indiana County Visitors & Convention Bureau in 1989, saw several changes and developments in the ’90s, both in name and location as well as new opportunities for growth and marketing with the birth of the Internet, and even a new tax.

Perhaps one of the biggest things to contribute to the growth of tourism for Indiana County in this decade was the creation of the Festival of Lights display at Blue Spruce Park.

The festival, a brainchild of Christine Brownlee, the bureau’s executive director from 1991-93, and Lorri Hunter, sales manager at Best Western University Inn at the time, sparked to life on Nov. 27, 1992, with 8,000 lights decorating the park. It was started by the bureau under the direction of the It’s a Wonderful Life Committee as part of the “It’s a Wonderful Life in Indiana” holiday season promotion.

In its first season, an estimated 10,000 people toured the light festival, according to a December 1992 Gazette article. It even brought out Harry Overly, founder of Overly’s Christmas, a massive lighting display featured at Idlewild Park that year, who volunteered to serve as an adviser to the county’s lights festival. In the Gazette article, Overly rated the display a 10, which he said he never gives, based on “the areas they selected to light, the amounts, the displays … If they get any kind of support in the future, they’ll be a success.”

The festival has been an Indiana County must-see holiday attraction ever since.

In 2000, the festival was placed under the management of the Indiana County Department of Recreation and Parks. The “Wonderful Life” promotion was expanded by the tourist bureau that year, according to a May 2000 Gazette article.

The new name, “It’s a Wonderful Life in Indiana County,” and slogan “Christmas Capital USA,” were intended to include traditional tourist draws such as the Jimmy Stewart Museum, the Christmas tree growing industry and the Lucy Donnelly Memorial Light-Up Project in downtown Indiana, as well as other attractions and events, according to the article.

 

Another significant change for the bureau that occurred was the county’s enactment of a hotel room tax that supports the organization’s operations, which came about under executive director Barb Shaffer Peles, who headed the tourist bureau from 1994-99.

“That was able to get us off the county tax rolls,” Shaffer Peles said, adding that several counties around Indiana were going that route at that time, such as Blair County. “The county’s budget kept getting cut and it was difficult to make ends meet. (This way) it was actually the end users paying to help promote the community, and not a burden for the locals.”

The hotel room tax started out at 2 percent, she said, but later was raised to 3 percent. That percentage goes to the county treasurer’s office, which keeps a portion of the money as an administrative fee and gives the rest to the tourist bureau.

Shaffer Peles said with the hotel room tax, the bureau’s funding went from $20,000 to $100,000 a year.

Prior to that, they were “very much event-based at the time.”

“Because we didn’t have money to go out and promote events, we created events ourselves to bring people in,” said Shaffer Peles, who departed the bureau about a year into the room tax. They also did a lot of “shoestring marketing,” she said, and added that “there were times where I didn’t know if I was going to be able to pay myself.”

“There was not a lot of funding, so we had to be really creative in promoting attractions and activities in the county,” something she said she saw as an opportunity.

 

With the influx of money from the room tax, the Indiana County Tourist Bureau was able to relocate from the basement of the Chamber office on Philadelphia Street, where it had been since 1993, to the Indiana Mall near the K-Mart entrance in 1998.

“We chose the mall because even though we had gotten generous free rent on Philadelphia Street, there was no visibility,” she said. “The Chamber’s generosity was great, but we weren’t accessible to visitors, and (the tax) afforded us the opportunity to have our own space in the mall to offer a visitors’ center.”

During her time with the bureau, Shaffer Peles said they still had several of the events under their direction, including the Festival of Lights and the holiday parade, the Fourth of July celebration, and Queen Evergreen promotion, for which she conducted 80 appearances a year, she said. But those activities eventually were turned over to other agencies.

“They went on, but they were the responsibility of a different group,” she said.

The Keystone Overlook closed in the 1990s when the grant from Penelec was cut, and the bureau didn’t have the money to staff it, Shaffer Peles said.

“It was a rather old building; it would have needed some serious renovations to keep going,” said Shaffer Peles, adding that the overlook area used to hold antique car shows as well as animal shows from Pearce’s Pet Place.

 

Under Shaffer Peles’ leadership, the tourist bureau’s membership grew from about 170 members to 260 in 1999.

And it was under her tenure that the bureau got its first website up and running, making the agency’s presence felt on the World Wide Web and further widening its reach to potential visitors to the area at the dawn of a new technological age.

She also worked to encourage cross-promotion with surrounding counties as well as the Pittsburgh area and the Route 422 region, which encompasses Lawrence, Butler, Armstrong and Indiana counties and promotes attractions in that region.

The bureau also spent $1,000 to $2,000 to participate in the Pittsburgh & Its Countryside program, which features Allegheny and surrounding counties, a “huge amount of money compared to Allegheny County, about a quarter of our budget,” Shaffer Peles said.

“But we understood it was important to get our name mixed in with the rest of (that region),” she said, adding that having that inclusion allowed Indiana County to be featured in a broader range of marketing materials. “It wasn’t singularly Indiana County but it was a way to cross-promote” — instead of someone going just to Fallingwater, for example, they might also come to Indiana and visit the Jimmy Stewart Museum.

The bureau also played host in the late ’90s to nearly a dozen motorcoach owners from along the East Coast to allow them to experience tourist spots throughout the county that their clients could visit on a future trip, according to a September 1997 Gazette article. The purpose of the “familiarization tour,” as it was dubbed, was to introduce tour group operators to the sites, attractions and activities the county has to offer, such as downtown Indiana, the Amish countryside and historic Saltsburg, thereby allowing the operators to create itineraries and packages for the area and begin booking tours.

Shaffer Peles considers the Queen Evergreen ambassador promotion program and the “It’s a Wonderful Life” cast member reunion for the 50th anniversary of the debut of the holiday classic as two of her other major accomplishments.

“It was a big deal getting them all back here,” she said of the film’s cast members, several of whom came to Indiana three years prior in 1993 for a similar event. The event garnered a lot of media attention, including write-ups in The New York Times and The Washington Post. The reunion weekend included a dance at Chestnut Ridge Inn on the Green and a radio show featuring the cast members.

Through the Pennsylvania Tree Growers, Shaffer Peles said she always took Queen Evergreen to the tree growers convention. The state would provide the details of what they were looking for in a Christmas tree for the capital, something Shaffer Peles said takes several years.

“It was really exciting to be a part of it,” she said.

In 1995, Indiana County was selected to provide two Christmas trees to adorn Gov. Tom Ridge’s mansion in Harrisburg, one that graced the grand hallway entrance beside a circular staircase, and a smaller one for schoolchildren to decorate, according to a December 1995 article in the Gazette. The county and tree growers received recognition by way of plaques advising visitors to the mansion of the origin of the trees.

And if that wasn’t enough to be proud of, Shaffer Peles had the pleasure of taking Queen Evergreen to the Capitol, where she got to flip the switch to the light the tree, surrounded by the governor and dignitaries who made themselves present for the occasion. Queen Evergreen, Shaffer Peles said, got to go up to the door in areas where others weren’t permitted.

“She got us into various things because of her crown. It was great recognition,” she said. “Indiana County got its name out there because of this ambassador.”

 

As the agency's executive director since 2003, Penny Perman’s major focus has been maintaining visibility in the public and, as funding allows, more help to the bureau’s members for promoting their events.

And she has helped the bureau go high-tech through means of new technology and by way of social media.

One of her priorities has been working on a broader marketing plan, which has included leading up to the installation of two digital Explore Boards that visitors can access for suggestions on where to stay, where to eat, where to shop and points of interest.

“For me, that was something that I had always thought could be possible, and then it became possible,” Perman said.

Making people aware of what her agency does — both members and nonmembers — comes as one of her biggest challenges, she said.

“Sometimes I think maybe the members don’t even know the benefits that we can offer them,” she said. “I think nonmembers also might not realize the things that we can do to help promote them, so I think that’s why it was important to be more visible and show people what we can do to help them.”

Perman said she and her staff have been fortunate enough to be involved in cooperative initiatives with the Route 422 group, one way she said helps the bureau be more visible, in addition to cooperative advertising for the region.

“Sometimes it helps more than just for Indiana County. The Route 422 region has been very successful,” she said. “Also, working with the groups within the county, the CEO group, is definitely a plus for the tourist bureau.”

In recent years, state funding has been cut to county tourism agencies, prompting the tourist bureau to execute creative and more aggressive marketing methods, which Perman thinks has helped to bring in more “heads in beds,” or hotel-room stays, referencing an upgraded website, television ads, an appealing visitor guide and “fresh and unique” advertisements.

“All of that combined, I think, is driving the people to the county,” she said. “Once you show them the quality of life that’s here, I think that that’s what’s helping that.”

Perman is fortunate that Indiana is one county that doesn’t have to rely on fundraising, something she said she feels “really isn’t our place to do an event, because that would take away from any other events that our members are doing in the county.”

“As long as we can continue to not have to do the fundraisers in the form of an event … and we never know, we don’t know. The hotel room tax is still fluctuating that we don’t know. It may come to that,” she said, adding that for now, “we’re trying to use our creative marketing initiatives versus the events.”

 

Making its most recent move to its current location next to Sears in the mall, the bureau’s office and visitors’ center was a big accomplishment for Perman.

“We have identified that the mall is a good central location in Indiana County for us to be at,” she said. “Looking at the space, it’s new, we were able to make it warm and inviting for everyone.”

She also takes a lot of pride in the Explore Boards, which were five years in the making and were revealed earlier this year.

“It was just a huge step forward into high-tech for us. I was very pleased with that,” she said. “It was always on the back burner. How can we do this? How can we move forward and how can we take a step out of the box and do something different?

“I guess as smartphones and everything progressed it was almost just like, ‘Wow, now we have to do something.’ And we luckily found an avenue to do it. I think that that whole high-tech and smartphones kind of gave us a little bit of an edge and a push to do it.”

The two Explore Boards are located at the Holiday Inn along Wayne Avenue and the Hampton Inn and Suites in Blairsville, and contain approximately 60 member profiles. Perman said she’s hoping to install another one somewhere within the county, but “that’s in the planning stages.” Indiana County is listed on Pittsburgh’s Explore Boards, and the Route 422 region will be on there as well, she said, “giving members the avenue to be exposed down in the Pittsburgh area … through the Explore Boards,” something she said the bureau’s members have never really done before.

“Not only is it a step out of the box for us, it’s a step out of the box for a lot of our members, too.” In that sense, she said, “we’ve helped our members look at how better they can get more exposure out of the county also, and that’s important for them.”

She also is proud of the relationships she and her staff have built with their members and other organizations in the community.

“It takes more than just the tourist bureau to promote the county. It takes the other entities also, and when everybody is working together, then that’s what’s going to make it successful,” she said.

With the social media boom, Perman and her staff have taken advantage of some outlets, such as Facebook, to interact with the community and promote the bureau’s members. Over the last several months they held a photo contest through Facebook in conjunction with the agency’s 50th anniversary, something they’ve never done before.

They also maintain their own website, as well as take care of the creative aspects of the visitor guide and calendar and other materials in-house.

“We try to stay within our means of what we can do to better serve as many people as we can” without taking on too many initiatives and becoming overwhelmed, which would be counterproductive to their mission, she added.

“That helps serve the members better,” she said.

 

Perman said she wants to see the bureau maintain its relationships with its members and the community, and continue to help the members, while continuing to move forward “just like we’ve done.”

“I think the foundation has been laid, and we just need to continue building as we’ve done in the past. Just continue building to a level that we feel comfortable with,” she said.

“You can’t promise things that you can’t produce, and I don’t want to see it be that,” she added, emphasizing that while the bureau would love to have more members, “I don’t want to get the members just to be a number; I want the members to join the tourist bureau and take advantage of the benefits that we can offer them and have a good relationship with them.”

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