Tourism to be focus of new Westmoreland County visitor center on Route 119
Westmoreland County will open a visitor center next month as part of a renewed push to promote tourism.
On Thursday, county commissioners are expected to approve an $81,000 contract with the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau to operate the facility in a plaza on Route 119, north of the Pennsylvania Turnpike interchange near New Stanton.
“It will be good to have a point of entry for the county. They are going to staff it to promote all of our assets and be a showcase and have a local flavor to it,” Commissioner Ted Kopas said.
Expected to open by mid-February, the visitor’s center will be located at Hepler’s Town & Country, in a space between Sib’s Sweet Shop and the Stanton Daily Grind, a locally owned coffee shop. Hepler’s Hardware is on the bottom level of the property.
Originally built as a hardware store in the 1960s, the upper level previously housed a diner and a restaurant. Now known as the Garden Center Marketplace, the building can hold up to three tenants.
“When the garden center first opened back in the ’60s, it advertised itself as a gateway to the Laurel Highlands, and that’s kind of the approach we’re having with the whole complex now, is to really look at it as a gateway to the region, and specifically for Westmoreland County,” said Megan Hepler Orient, secretary and marketing manager of Hepler’s Town & Country.
The center will promote tourism-based businesses in the county by showcasing various locations and describing what visitors will see and learn from individual businesses.
“It will be very specific to the county. This will give us an opportunity to exhibit you,” Ann Nemanic, executive director of the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau, told a group of business owners Wednesday during the 2019 Westmoreland County Tourism Grants ceremony.
Start-up costs and the first year of operations for the information center will be covered by the initial $81,000, commissioners said. The visitor’s center will be staffed by one full-time employee and several part-time workers from the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau, commissioners said.
The visitors bureau, based in Ligonier, is the primary tourism agency for Westmoreland, Fayette and Somerset counties. It operates on funding generated by hotel taxes assessed in each county.
Westmoreland commissioners in 2016 raised the hotel tax from 3 percent to 5 percent. Tax generated by the original levy is given to the visitors bureau for its regional work, as well as for grants awarded to Westmoreland County tourist destinations. This year, more than $474,500 was granted to local tourism-related businesses.
During the tourism ceremony hosted by the visitors bureau, Hepler’s Town and Country Enterprises was awarded nearly $8,550 from the marketing grant. According to Nemanic, the money will be used to create a multimedia marketing campaign including billboards, photographs, website enhancements, brochures and print and digital ads that will capitalize on its “ideal location for a welcoming visitor experience.”
For county commissioners, the center’s location is key to taking advantage of what officials say will be increased tourism coming into the county because of a mini casino that is expected to open at Westmoreland Mall .
As one of the first commercial properties east of several interstate interchanges, the property also is prime for welcoming visitors and bus groups, promoting the goal of a unique and special experience, Orient said.
This is just the start of changes coming to Hepler’s Town & Country, Orient said. Future projects include a rooftop garden and continuing a farmers market that was started last year.
“We are an independently owned, locally owned group of businesses,” Orient said. “Everything we’re doing is trying to provide a service that’s … a unique experience for visitors.”
Rich Cholodofsky and Megan Tomasic are Tribune-Review staff writers. You can contact Rich at firstname.lastname@example.org and Megan at email@example.com.