Bradford County Makes the Decision to Go It Alone

As incensed and dismayed as I was upon leaving the Bradford County Commissioners meeting in Towanda on Feb. 13, I’m glad that I held off a week to write about it. A stubborn cold left me a little too cloudy to effectively wrap my mind around what had really happened there until now.

In the course of the eight days since Commissioners Doug McLinko and Daryl Miller voted to discontinue the county’s support of the Endless Mountains Visitors Bureau, the only evidence I’ve seen of of anyone backing up the two Republican commissioners is one letter each to the editors of the Daily Review in Towanda and Rocket-Courier in Wyalusing and a Facebook response to my own posting encouraging participation in the meeting.

Unfortunately, the set-up for the meeting was a pair of articles “written” by James Lowenstein in the Daily Review and Amy Gervin in the Rocket-Courier in which both reporters merely served as mouthpieces for Doug and Daryl. The release of the information to the papers was cleverly timed to prevent either writer from having enough time to check “facts” given to them by Doug nor to get a differing opinion from Visitors Bureau Executive Director Jean Ruhf.

Thankfully, James, Amy, and Sayre Morning Times reporter Collin Hogan provided some journalistic balance to the situation in their respective stories following the Feb. 13 meeting. Each writer provided a realistic snapshot of the emotions and confusion prompted by the decision of the two commissioners.

Doug acknowledged the emotion and insisted that the county had a full year to come up with a plan as to how to spend the room tax money that it would no longer be sending to the Visitors Bureau. But it was more than apparent that hearing public commentary on the issue was a ruse. The plan had been concocted months earlier behind closed doors and, as of Feb. 13, it was a done deal.

Despite the impassioned pleas of so many at the meeting for the commissioners to renew their attempt to better achieve their tourism goals with the help of the Visitors Bureau, there was no hint in Doug’s rhetoric to suggest that the commissioners would ever again be sitting down at the table with Ruhf and other Visitors Bureau board members.

Registered speakers were held to two minutes to express their opinions, and each disapproved of the decision. Doug characteristically interrupted the speakers and rebuffed and dismissed their remarks. In responses that went on for three minutes or more, he offered no clear answers to anyone’s questions yet badgered Jean for specific facts about Bradford County as they pertained to the promotional efforts of the Visitors Bureau. When he was challenged by speakers whom he had interrupted, he said “Don’t tell me I can’t. It’s my meeting.”

Jean and I and others who share the vision of the four-county Endless Mountains region as home and a distinct portion of the state that works best when it works together did our best to explain to the commissioners that tourism – for which the room tax funds are specifically earmarked by state law – is about promoting the region to outsiders.

Doug countered continuously that he was more concerned about promoting to Bradford County residents what is happening on the other side of their own county, a notion refuted by representatives of the Bradford County Regional Arts Council. Elaine Poost was one of several speakers to offer statistics suggesting that event attendees from outside the state, especially, will spend two to three times as much money per person than a local resident attending the same event.

Of course this is true. People coming from outside the area need a hotel room or a place to camp and restaurants to eat in before and after the event. Locals attend and support the events, but they will go home to eat dinner and sleep. They are also not as inclined to make as many purchases because the participating businesses are accessible to them every day.

Doug’s notion that Bradford County has somehow been maligned from within by its own media sources and made out to be a hellhole as a result of the natural gas business has been overplayed. It’s beginning to sound very much as if Doug is blaming the Visitors Bureau for a “problem” that very few people see in the same light.

Room tax funds cannot be used for “economic development” as Doug contends, and, if the “problem” is a result of gas drilling, then impact fee money and collaborations with gas company representatives should be effectively pursued to remedy the situation, the latter a suggestion by Robert Spraker who manages several hotels in the region that was also tossed aside by Doug.

Doug and Daryl insist that they are not taking Bradford County out of the Endless Mountains. But, as I said to them that day, for them to truly believe that this poor decision will not negatively impact the other Endless Mountains umbrella agencies, let alone many businesses in Bradford County that have branded themselves for generations as Endless Mountain This or That, clearly demonstrates how short-sighted their plan is.

The manner in which this entire matter has been handled smells very badly of a power play. Doug and Daryl have always been very supportive of the Bradford Wyoming Literacy Council and other agencies through which social services are extended to adjacent counties because they are ultimately headquartered in and administered from Bradford County.

They opposed the impact fee because they wanted more control of how the funds would be distributed and how they could be used. They are breaking away from the Endless Mountains Visitors Bureau because they cannot control it, nor have they ever fully understood how much it does for Bradford County and the region as a whole.

I cannot believe that the majority of citizens and business owners in Bradford County want to leave the Endless Mountains or believe that their county commissioners will be more effective at handling money for tourism promotion on their own.

Doug spoke of a some groundswell of support for his and Daryl’s initiative but could only manage to drop one name – Tom Fairchild. Where were these supporters? Not one person who spoke before the commissioners on Feb. 13 agreed with them. One might have thought that Doug could have twisted the arm of at least one of his business buddies to show his face in public that day, but apparently nobody dared or they don’t exist.

This is an extremely important issue, probably even more so than Chesapeake Energy cheating the relatively few people in Bradford County who are lucky enough to get gas royalties from the money that they clearly deserve. Doug made several unsuccessful efforts to steer conversation at the meeting toward that end, but there is no connection between the two.

The year of discussion ahead of Bradford County that Doug proposed should, by all means, include the possibility of the commissioners and the Visitors Bureau making amends and moving forward together.

Commissioners face reelection every four years. If Doug and or Daryl are voted out of office, a new board could feasibly reinstate the county’s relationship with the Visitors Bureau. But Doug’s big dreams of “a new Day in Bradford County” will take years to get off the ground. If his plan is overturned, it will take time to bring Bradford County back into the fold of the Endless Mountains. Does Bradford County really have the time and money to fix something that isn’t broken and lose the momentum that the Visitors Bureau has built up over the past decade?

Bradford County still has many beautiful places to visit, heritage sites from which to learn and to be proud of, and a unique assortment of museums, parks, and festivals. Despite the beauty that remains to be enjoyed by tourists, Doug and Daryl need to stand together on a higher mountain top and acknowledge that the area has been scarred. That’s not a result of of poor marketing, that’s a result of ignorance and poor planning.

Bradford County needs the Endless Mountains Visitors Bureau and Center today more than ever before.

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