Tribune Democrat: by Kecia Bal

SOMERSET – Brainstorming with fellow tourism entrepreneurs, Judy Pletcher, who operates Rockwood Mill Shoppes and Opera House, came up with a wild-sounding idea for a performance: a garlic-themed cabaret.

Apparently, the idea had legs.

Faranda Farm, a 50-acre agritourism farm in Hollsopple that organizes an annual Garlic Festival, now is working with county bed and breakfasts to make the garlic event a weekend lodging package that includes the show at the Opera House – and on Thursday, the farm operators landed $4,725 to market it.

“I was just talking to the Farandas about their ‘stinking good time,’” Pletcher said. “We want to have a ‘stinking good time’ at our place, too.”

Those are the types of marketing partnerships that won funding in some of the $197,489 in Somerset County Tourism Grants awarded to 39 tourism-related businesses and organizations Thursday at the Somerset Historical Center.

The grants are funded by one-third of the revenue generated by the county’s hotel room tax, a 3 percent lodging tax paid by guests.

Those were also the type of connections that Reneé Seifert, Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau CEO and a member of a grant review committee, encouraged during the event to announce grant winners.

The idea of working with other attractions to create a package is more than just a creative twist on doing business, Pletcher said. Small businesses need to support one another, she said.

“Without one another, we don’t exist,” she said.

The most recent figures show tourism continues to be a major economic driver for the county – the No. 2 industry, behind manufacturing, according to Somerset County Chamber Executive Director Ron Aldom. 

According to the most recent economic studies conducted by Pennsylvania State Tourism Office, travelers spent more than $379 million in Somerset County in 2013 and $1.8 billion in the entire Laurel Highlands region. The county’s tourism industry also provided 2,395 jobs, according to the studies.

Seifert said the numbers are encouraging, and she praised local officials for working to support tourism efforts through the county. 

“Those statistics indicate that what we all know, that the Laurel Highlands is a vibrant and diverse four-season destination with significant economic impact,” she said.

County commissioners were on hand to congratulate grant winners.

Commissioner James T. Yoder, who was part of the grant review committee, said 70 businesses applied – and he saw a lot of “innovation and creativity.”

The largest grant award went to Meyersdale Area Historical Society, which landed $18,337 for staffing a visitors center in the renovated Western Maryland Train Station, a popular stop for Great Allegheny Passage trail users.

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