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Hotel tax revenues up in Westmoreland County

| Monday, Feb. 10, 2014, 11:21 p.m.

Annual revenues generated from a hotel tax have nearly doubled since it was first collected in Westmoreland County.

Taxes on rooms rented at 86 county inns, hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts generated more than $1.15 million in 2013, according to Treasurer Jared Squires.

In 2003 — the first year the 3 percent tax was assessed — about $600,000 was collected.

“The number of hotels remains fairly constant,” Squires said. “The increase reflects more users and the costs per rooms going up.”

The Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau, the Ligonier agency that oversees tourism in Westmoreland, Fayette and Somerset counties, administers the hotel tax program in all three counties.

The bureau receives some revenue generated in each county and returns a portion of the local money to each county to be distributed in grants.

The agency uses its share to promote tourism in the region, said Ronald Virag, the bureau's executive director.

“We're continuing our marketing efforts, targeting people in Pittsburgh; Washington, D.C.; Cleveland and Columbus. We've done a pretty good job at bringing people into the region,” Virag said.

In Westmoreland County, one-third of the hotel tax revenue is awarded in grants to tourism destinations for capital improvements and other needs.

Virag said about 110 applications were submitted this year. Grants are scheduled to be awarded this spring.

Last year, about $413,000 was shared among 63 groups to promote tourism in Westmoreland County.

Two percent of the tax collected in Westmoreland is used for general county operations, while the remaining 65 percent goes to the visitors bureau.

Somerset County turns over 30 percent of its hotel tax to the bureau, with 40 percent used for local grants and the remaining 30 percent earmarked for use by the county commissioners.

In Fayette County, hotel tax revenue is split evenly between the visitors bureau and local grants.

Fayette County awarded more than $529,000 from proceeds of the hotel tax last year to local nonprofit groups.

Nadine Yanarelli, vice president and chief financial officer of the visitors bureau, said hotel tax revenues are expected toincrease by 4 percent this year.

Yanarelli said she is hoping for a larger increase.

Last summer's rainy weather depressed tourism, and hotel revenues fell off pace in part because of the federal government shutdown that resulted in the cancellation of the Westmoreland County Air Show, according to Virag.

Despite a dip in collections in 2009 during the economic downturn, hotel tax revenues have slowly grown.

Virag said that will continue in 2014 with an upgraded tourism website and a new grant program to promote visitors' centers along the Great Allegheny Passage hiking and biking trail.

“We'd always like to have more,” Virag said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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