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WV tourism commission OKs $1.2M in ad grants

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia Tourism Commissioners Thursday approved $1.2 million in tourism advertising matching grants for 14 tourist attractions and organizations — but in a rare move, postponed action on one of the grant applications.

The commission postponed consideration of a $175,000 grant request from Mountaineer Casino and Racetrack after Joseph Manchin IV said the racetrack casino’s advertising plan was bland and generic and said the resort seems to be “in a holding pattern” or worse.

“I cannot in good conscience vote for this application,” said Manchin, son of U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin. “I would like to send a very clear message to Eldorado that this is not free money.”

Eldorado Resorts Inc., based in Reno, Nevada, is the parent company of Mountaineer.

With state funding for tourism shrinking in recent years, Manchin said the commission has an obligation to help fund the best, most innovative advertising campaigns.

“This group has to go before the Legislature every year and justify, kicking and screaming, why these dollars are so important,” he said.

Along those lines, commission Chairman Oshel Craigo urged the commission and representatives of state tourism attractions to find out if their legislative candidates “share our passion for tourism.”

“If they do, you should help them get elected. If they don’t, you should help them get defeated,” said Craigo, a former longtime state senator.

Four attractions received the maximum $175,000 matching grant: Wheeling Island Gaming, Showshoe Mountain Resort, Mardi Gras Casino and Resort and Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races.

Chris Parker, marketing director for Hollywood Casino, said the advertising funding will be particularly crucial with the December opening of the $1 billion MGM National Harbor Casino and Resort outside of Washington, D.C., and with Maryland casinos ramping up their advertising and promotional efforts in response.

 “It’s more critical than ever, because of the new oncoming competition,” she said.

Winterplace Ski Resort received a grant just shy of the maximum, at $173,234, for a “Learn to Ski” campaign that will promote the resort’s terrain-based learning facilities.

Also at Thursday’s Tourism Commission meeting:

Tourism Commissioner Amy Shuler Goodwin reported on an overnight visitors study showing that overnight travelers to the state have increased by 6 percent, or 1.1 million, from 2011 to 2015, with 15.9 million overnight visits in 2015.

State residents account for the largest percentage of overnight stays, at 19 percent, followed by residents of Ohio, at 14 percent, and Virginia, at 11 percent.

While border states and the metro-Washington, D.C. area account for most overnight visits, Florida and North Carolina came in at 5 percent each, followed by New York at 3 percent.

Goodwin said the biggest growth states for West Virginia tourism are New York, Texas and Louisiana, with the latter presumably driven by New Orleans Saints football training camps at The Greenbrier.

The commission unanimously approved a resolution in support of expanding Amtrak Cardinal passenger train service from three days a week to daily service.

The Cardinal’s New York City to Chicago route travels through southern West Virginia, with stops at White Sulphur Springs, Hinton, Charleston, Huntington and points in between, and provides what the resolution calls “unforgettable views” of the New River gorge and southeastern West Virginia.

“The promotion and expansion of the Cardinal line from three days a week to seven days a week for tourism and business travel is a crucial economic driver for sustainability and growth into the future,” the resolution states.

Last month, representatives of the Tourism Commission, along with other state and local officials, joined officials from other states served by the Cardinal for a daylong meeting in Cincinnati to discuss expanding Cardinal service. The meeting was billed as a first step in establishing a multi-state coalition in support of daily Cardinal service.

Reach Phil Kabler at [email protected], 304-348-1220, or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

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