Tourism marketing grants funded by a 3 percent hotel tax will be available to for-profit businesses in Fayette County under an amendment approved Tuesday.
Commissioners voted unanimously to amend the county's memorandum of understanding with Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau to expand grant eligibility to for-profits, but Commissioner Angela Zimmerlink said she will seek to review the action when the new board takes office in January.
Grants funded by the tax had been available only to nonprofits. The amendment opens the grants to tourism-related businesses that can use them only for marketing and will be required to match them dollar for dollar.
Eric Martin, owner of Trillium Lodge and the whitewater rafting company Wilderness Voyageurs in Ohiopyle, said opening the grants to for-profits will help companies expand and bring more visitors to Fayette.
“This is an opportunity to help us continue to grow,” Martin said. “This tax is supposed to help us ... put more heads in beds.”
Joel Means of Ohiopyle River Tours said the 25,000 people he takes rafting each year contribute significantly to the tax.
“I fill hundreds, if not thousands, of hotel rooms annually,” Means said. “It's companies like mine that need the access to the marketing dollars to bring more people in.”
Zimmerlink wanted to table the item until Commissioners-elect Vincent Vicites and David Lohr are seated in January, but her motion failed for lack of support.
Renee Seifert, president of the visitors bureau, said the agency needed to have the amendment approved as soon as possible so it can solicit grant applications simultaneously in Fayette, Westmoreland and Somerset counties.
“This will allow the applicants to be on equal footing throughout all the counties,” Seifert said.
Owners of several other tourism-related businesses expressed their support for the amendment. But some residents who attended the meeting questioned the need to approve it before the new commissioners are on board.
Many of those same residents questioned the rush to approve a five-year contract with Ford Business Machines of Dunbar for information technology services at a rate of $14,150 per month.
Commissioners Al Ambrosini and Vincent Zapotosky, whose terms are up at the end of the month, voted in favor of the contract. Zimmerlink dissented.
Zimmerlink said Ford's proposal — it was unsolicited — calls for them to provide services already available to the county through its IT department or other vendors.
But William Catalina of Ford Business Machines said the county's IT infrastructure is inadequate. It's so insecure, it could be hacked by a 14-year-old, he said, and is incapable of supporting a new phone system that is to be installed by a different vendor.
“It would be impossible to defend the county's position if a security breach occurred,” Catalina said.
Zapotosky said the contracted service will save the county in terms of salary and benefits it would pay to hire its own employees for IT services.
Ford approached officials with the proposed contract shortly after the county removed Tony Amicarella from his job as IT director.
Liz Zemba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or firstname.lastname@example.org.