Westmoreland County visitor center at New Stanton hopes to drive tourism, repeat trips
Visitors headed north on Route 119 from the New Stanton exits of Interstate 70 or the Pennsylvania Turnpike have enjoyed a choice of coffee, chocolates or both at two businesses where the Garden Center Restaurant once stood.
Now they’re able to learn about a host of other choices the area has to offer in tourism, entertainment, dining and shopping by stopping at the Westmoreland County Visitor Information Center.
A joint effort involving the county, The Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau and the Hepler family that owns the building, the center officially opened Monday in a space between Stanton Daily Grind and Sib’s Sweet Shoppe and above Hepler’s Hardware.
The center gives first-time visitors “an idea that there is certainly more in Westmoreland County,” said Ann Nemanic, executive director of the visitors bureau. “We want them to come back, we want them to stay longer, but most importantly, we want those tourism dollars to be invested back in Westmoreland County because tourism is an important economic driver.”
She said the center can serve as a resource for motor coach tours heading into the area and for residents who are inviting out-of-town guests for a wedding or other event.
The center’s walls are filled with photo murals and video screens depicting area attractions and a large map that places those sites in relation to the Laurel Highlands’ three counties — Westmoreland, Fayette and Somerset — and Pittsburgh. Brochures provide additional information about many attractions.
“Westmoreland County has a great story to tell, and now we have a one-stop shop to do just that,” county Commissioner Ted Kopas said.
“I’m very happy that the visitor center is opening up right in time for summer because we have a lot of festivals coming up,” Commissioner Gina Cerilli said.
The center’s 875 square feet contain displays on loan from community partners that will be changed periodically. Current exhibits include a large decorated gas pump on loan from the Lincoln Highway Experience museum in Unity and an antique hand-operated cart once part of a children’s ride at Idlewild & SoakZone in Ligonier Township.
Display cases are filled with items related to local people, places and events, including Steelers training camp at Saint Vincent College, late children’s television host and Latrobe native Fred Rogers and glass crafted in Mt. Pleasant.
On display only during the opening celebration was Rosie, a 9-month-old red kangaroo. The joey attracted much attention as it was carried by Tom Guiher of Living Treasures Wild Animal Park near Donegal, where the young marsupial is a new addition.
The idea for the center was sparked when Megan Orient, among the fourth generation of the Hepler family to operate its local businesses, approached the visitors bureau about using some of the space remaining after the family opened the Stanton Daily Grind a year ago.
“We wanted to turn this site back into a draw for tourists,” she said. Her family’s former Garden Center Restaurant at that spot from the 1960s through the 1980s was one of the community’s first 24-hour diners.
The county has a two-year lease for the center. The monthly rent of $850 is covered by proceeds of the county’s hotel occupancy tax.
Since its April 8 soft opening, center visitors have inquired about area hiking and biking trails, special events and attractions such as Polymath Park, a nearby group of homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright or in his style, according to Anna Weltz, public relations director for the visitors bureau.
The visitor center’s complement of one full-time staffer and two part-timers will be supplemented with interns from Westmoreland County Community College’s hospitality program.
The center will be open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays until the end of May. Those hours will be in effect seven days a week from Memorial Day weekend into the fall.
Plans are to promote the center using area billboards.
Weltz noted a visitor center her organization operates in Farmington, in partnership with Fayette County, quadrupled its visitor numbers between its first and second years in service.
“We’re looking forward to having that happen here, as well,” she said at the New Stanton opening.
Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff at 724-836-6622, [email protected] or via Twitter .