Daily American: by Judy D.J. Ellich

For the first time since the inception of the Somerset County Tourism Grant Program in 2003, the money available for businesses and organizations fell below $200,000, or about half of the amount presented in 2015.
The competitive grants for marketing and capital improvement projects ranged from $213 to $18,337.
There were 71 applications seeking about $680,000, according to county officials. Forty-two grants totaling $197,489 were awarded to 39 tourism related businesses and organizations during a ceremony Thursday at the Somerset Historical Center.

Fiftythree applicants received a combined $338,197 in 2015. “Available grant funds for this year are lower to accommodate for outstanding grants from previous years,” said Anna Weltz, public relations director for the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau. “Also, on two occasions, additional funds were awarded beyond the scope of the available grant funds to provide opportunities for continued growth and development within the scope of the grant program.” Weltz said the lower grant amount was not the result of reduced tourism.

“Tourism continues to thrive in Somerset County and the Laurel Highlands,” she said. The grants are funded by 40 percent of the annual proceeds of Somerset County’s hotel tax, a 3 percent levy introduced in 2002. The remaining 60 percent is split between the visitors bureau, the county’s recognized tourism promotion agency, and the county.

No one seemed to mind that there was less money to go around Thursday. There was a lot of laughter, accolades and sharing at the event by participants and program organizers alike.Commissioner James T. Yoder said a “catchup year” in which less money was granted “was a long time in coming.”

Grant recipients must provide documentation, such as invoices, of what was spent to move their projects forward. For recipients who received grants of more than $10,000, the money will be awarded in two stages, the second after documentation has been presented to the review committee. Some recipients have fallen behind on providing documentation, so they have not received the total grant funding that was to be awarded for their project, he said. Some of the outstanding grant award projects go back five years, he said. The committee is keeping money back this year to pay previous recipients once they have finished their required reports, according to committee members.

During the past few months, the committee has changed the rules and tightened the timeframe for grant money to be used so it does not have to hold money in escrow to pay for grants from previous years, according to Commissioner Gerald Walker. “We needed to tighten it up so that the program can continue to thrive,” Weltz said.

The grant program has awarded $3,876,433 to about 500 recipients to date.

According to a study conducted by the Pennsylvania Tourism Office, travelers spent more than $379 million in Somerset County in 2013, said Renee Seifert, CEO of the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau. That amount was 2 percent higher the following year, she said. Overall visitor spending in the Laurel Highlands totaled $1.8 billion, she added.

The program’s goal is to foster economic development by enhancing the tourism experience across the region. The grant money must be used to promote tourism, either through marketing or capital improvement projects. The grant review committee meets several times to review applications before selecting recipients and deciding on the allotments.

The committee members are Yoder; Eric Mauck, CEO of Seven Springs Mountain Resort; George Coyle, general manager of Somerset Med Services; John Weir of PBS Coals; and Seifert. Coyle has been a member of the committee from its inception.