During the recent annual briefing on the Pennsylvania Wilds Initiative, Ta Brant, PA Wilds Small Business Ombudsman, presented a recap of the past year and an update on current programs.
"Things are definitely happening in our region," Brant emphasized. "One of the keys is to balance nature and commerce."
Brant highlighted some of the initiatives in place within the region, including a workshop about balancing nature and commerce, merchandising opportunities, youth outreach, Trails Conference, co-op marketing opportunities, community signage grants, design assistance grants and Artisan Trail developments.
She noted that the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) has made strategic investments in the region.
From 2002-2009, DCNR has invested $10.6 million in Elk County, including water and sewer upgrades and pool rehab at Bendigo State Park, improvements to Lakeside Trail and a board launch parking area at Elk State Park, the new Elk Country Visitor Center, major improvements to Thunder Mountain Equine Trail System, new public restrooms along the Elk Scenic Drive and $1 million to the Allegheny National Forest (ANF) to support recreation trails specifically for ATVs and snowmobiles.
The ANF and state parks make up a large portion of the public lands within the region, a part of the area's 29 state parks, 50 State Game Lands, situated on two million acres of public land, comparable to that of Yellowstone.
Brant cited information from a 2010 Econsult report which stated that "at a time and place in which demographics and economics would seem to suggest stagnation, tourism-driven economic growth in Pennsylvania Wilds region has been a bright spot."
Among investments made throughout the region are those by the state Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED), ranging from branding and national marketing to Main Street/Elm Street programs and the First Industries tourism loan fund for small businesses.
From last year, attendance at the region's state parks is up 3.3 percent, overnight leisure travel up 5.3 percent, leisure overnight trip length up 4.6 percent, visitor spending up 6.3 percent, tourism employment up .5 percent, tourism earnings up 5.4 percent, state sales tax revenue from tourism categories within the PA Wilds up 2.7 percent and hotel tax revenue up 13 percent, and the number of chain hotel establishments grew from 31 to 43, which is a 39 percent increase.
Brant explained that as part of the PA Wilds Design Assistance Program, businesses and communities can obtain signage grants and technical design assistance grants.
"The program improves the look and feel of community, improves businesses' bottom line, helps brand the region, increases awareness among residents, community pride and can trigger other investments," Brant said.
She also cited the PA Wilds Artist Initiative, a program launched in 2006 that includes more than 100 juried artisans in a wide variety of mediums such as woodwork, jewelry, paintings, pottery, photography and more.
As part of the Artisan Trail, there are numerous locally owned shops, boutiques and galleries selling the artisans' authentic, handmade pieces throughout the PA Wilds region. There are currently 15 stops along the trail, with six stops added over the past year along with 13 new artisans.
"This trail allows artisans to bring their stuff to market and command a higher profit," Brant said.