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Cultural tourism on the rise in Westmoreland County, Laurel Highlands | TribLIVE.com
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Cultural tourism on the rise in Westmoreland County, Laurel Highlands

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Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
The Palace Theatre in downtown Greensburg contributes about $9 million to the local economy each year, according to local tourism officials. Visitors to Westmoreland County spend more than $700 million a year, according to the latest state figures.
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Patrick Connolly | Tribune-Review
The Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg.

Rick Erdelack’s lifelong love for the rock band Genesis regularly takes him on a road trip — from Pittsburgh to Greensburg to see the next best thing.

When The Musical Box, a Genesis tribute band, played last month at the Palace Theatre, Erdelack turned the event into a special occasion, dining at the Rialto restaurant and staying the night at the Courtyard by Marriott off Route 30.

“The Palace is great, and we really like the town,” he said.

The historic West Otterman Street venue draws thousands of people to Greensburg each year. And the money they spend on tickets, meals, hotel rooms and more adds up — to the tune of $9 million injected into the local economy annually, according to the Westmoreland Cultural Trust’s most recent economic impact study.

The trust wants to see that economic impact grow.

“We do not think that we have topped out by any stretch of the imagination,” said Michael Langer, president of the cultural trust that has run the 101-year-old theater since 1990.

A 2014 study showed the theater’s economic impact had increased by nearly $2 million since 2009, and Langer hopes to see a similar increase when the study is repeated in 2019.

The Palace’s growth corresponds to an overall expansion of the tourism industry in Westmoreland County. Travelers here spent $772.4 million in 2014, according to a study commissioned by the state Department of Community and Economic Development. That’s up $30 million from the prior year.

In Greensburg, a focus on the arts has helped the city grow its tourism base, said Judith Hansen O’Toole, director of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art.

“The city is extraordinarily supportive of the arts, and I don’t think that’s something you’ll find in many small towns in Pennsylvania. And I think that makes a huge difference for all of us,” she said.

The last economic impact study of the North Main Street museum found a yearly impact of $3 million, but it was performed before a two-year, $20 million expansion that was completed in 2015. Museum officials now estimate the impact at $4.5 million a year, though a study will be done soon to get a more accurate figure, O’Toole said.

Bigger stars, more stages

The Palace has grown in economic stature by attracting more big-name national acts, Langer said.

Smaller shows attract locals who might eat or have drinks at downtown establishments before a concert. But notable performers such as country singer Trace Adkins and comedian Lisa Lampanelli, both of whom are scheduled to perform at the Palace next weekend, turn Greensburg into a destination. And that means more tourism dollars.

“People that come in that situation typically stay a couple of days. They eat all their meals out, they stay in a hotel,” Langer said. “And, as you can imagine, those people are more valuable to the local economy than someone who comes and just has dinner and a show.”

In 2001, the Palace hosted 73 shows — 23 of which featured national touring artists. In 2015, it held 115 shows, and 74 of those were nationally known.

The theater has attracted visitors from numerous countries and almost every state, Langer said.

Greensburg has more cultural institutions than most cities its size, O’Toole said.

The Greensburg Garden and Civic Center, operated by the cultural trust, hosts the Westmoreland Symphony Orchestra and the Greensburg Civic Theatre company. Stage Right theater company holds numerous shows at the Palace each year. Seton Hill University opened its Performing Arts Center in 2009 in the downtown arts corridor and added an Arts Center in 2015.

Still, there’s no downtown hotel, and many storefronts remain vacant.

“I know we have a problem with storefronts being empty, but I think we’re still working on that, and we’re going to crack that,” O’Toole said.

The various cultural institutions sometimes have trouble scheduling major events. There used to be a volunteer-run cultural council that would work with city organizations to make sure their schedules didn’t conflict, but it was disbanded as volunteers lost interest. Now, major events are sometimes scheduled on overlapping dates, competing with each other, O’Toole said.

Sustaining growth

Like the Palace, other local attractions are expanding to vie for a bigger share of tourist dollars, said Anna Weltz, Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau spokeswoman.

Fort Ligonier began a $13 million expansion last year, and Laurel Mountain ski resort reopened in December after being closed for 11 years.

The largest category for travel spending in Westmoreland County is transportation, which reached $239.6 million in 2014. That’s mostly because of the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Unity, where passengers more than quintupled from 2011 to 2015 after Spirit Airlines started offering direct flights to destinations such as Orlando.

The number of passengers peaked at 355,910 in 2015 before dipping to 289,382 last year. It’s become easier for county residents to travel to distant locales and easier for visitors to come here, said airport Executive Director Gabe Monzo.

“We do it for Florida; they do it for us,” he said. “An airplane flies both ways, and that’s good for everybody.”

Westmoreland, Somerset and Fayette counties are part of the Laurel Highlands region, where travelers spent a combined $1.8 billion in 2014 — which ranked the region eighth out of 11 across Pennsylvania, according to the state tourism office. Updated tourism-related economic figures are expected to be released in the next few months.

The state’s biggest tourist draws are the Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Dutch Country Roads regions, each of which brought in more than $7.5 billion in 2014.

But the local impact shouldn’t be underestimated, Weltz said. The state economic study shows tourism supports almost 5,000 jobs in Westmoreland County — and almost 12 percent of the jobs in the Laurel Highlands region.

The Palace will continue to expand as a cultural and economic force for the county, Langer said.

“I think it will continue to play a major role. It has for a while, and I think it will only get better,” he said.

Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6646 or [email protected].

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