WILKES-BARRE —For decades, many people living outside of Northeastern Pennsylvania had a “negative perception” of the region,” according to Janet Hall, executive director of the Luzerne County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Whether it was a consistently high unemployment rate or a 2009 corruption scandal that later put two county judges in jail, outsiders looked down on the area.
But that isn’t the case these days, Hall said, noting: “That (perception) is changing for the better.”
She said part of the mission of the bureau — also known as Visit Luzerne County — is to improve our own self-esteem.
“We want to make sure the people who live here understand what a great place Northeastern Pennsylvania is to live, work and play,” Hall said. “If we don’t feel good about ourselves, how can we ever expect to improve? How will we be able to attract people, businesses, jobs? We all have to be ambassadors.”
Hall has been with the county agency for 21 years. She has seen the region improve, and she said she speaks with visitors every day who tell her how impressed they are with the area, especially when it comes to the great outdoors.
The visitors bureau’s budget for 2017 is $705,500, a $150,000 increase over 2016, Hall said. Major projects for the year include a new website (www.tournepa.com), increasing representation at trade shows, and doing more digital advertising.
According to the latest figures from the state, provided by Hall, tourists spent $875 million in Luzerne County in 2014, up from $860 million in 2013.
No local number has been released for 2015, but Hall said statewide tourism spending was up by 2.9 percent in 2015.
Hall said a lot of the agency’s marketing is geared toward millennials, defined by the Pew Research Center as people born from 1981 to 1998.
“Lately we have been pushing outdoor recreation, which is extremely important to millennials,” Hall said. “So that has been our main market focus.”
Hall said the visitors bureau does regional marketing, targeting tourists from Jim Thorpe to Corning, N.Y. She said the agency markets Luzerne County attractions and highlights places such as the Mohegan Sun Arena and the Mohegan Sun Pocono casino, as well as whitewater rafting, kayaking on the Susquehanna River, and state parks Ricketts Glen, Frances Slocum, Nescopeck and Lehigh Gorge.
Hall said outdoor activities like fishing, hunting, swimming and skiing are highlighted, along with the numerous historical attractions in the region, such as the Denison House, the Swetland Homestead and the Forty Fort Meeting House.
For Moxie Niedenthal, 37, of Kingston and formerly of Virginia, life in NEPA is all about the fauna and flora.
Niedenthal moved to the area in January for a new job and said she’s glad she did.
“I was lured up here by the outdoor recreational opportunities,” she said.
Niedenthal enjoys hiking, biking and camping in the mountains. She said she particularly enjoys spending time at Hickory Run, Frances Slocum, Worlds End and other state parks..
“I enjoy the peacefulness and reconnecting with nature,” Niedenthal said. “It helps you get your priorities straight.”
She said she finds it strange to hear local residents talk down about the area. She said many people have asked her, “Why would you move here?” Niedenthal responds by extolling the beauty of the region’s waterfalls, trails and the outdoors in general.
“There’s so much to do here and so many places to do it,” she said. “People who live around here are lucky. I grew up in a beach area, and I had to drive long distances to get to a mountain to hike.”
A major focus of the outdoors, Hall said, is the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, which starts in Bucks County and will end in Wilkes-Barre at River and Northampton streets. Hall said the 165-mile project is 95 percent complete and is used extensively by cyclists, hikers and others.
Hall said a similar trail — the Great Allegheny Passage, which runs from Pittsburgh to Washington D.C. — has had an enormous economic impact, with new restaurants, ice cream shops, bed and breakfast venues and bicycle shops popping up all along the trail. She said she expects the same to happen on the Delaware/Lehigh trail.
“We try to cover every possible niche that we can,” Hall said.
The region’s coal mining heritage is very popular among tourists, Hall said, adding that Eckley Miners’ Village and the Lackawanna Coal Mine Tour attract a lot of visitors.
“People from outside the area want that experience of going down into a coal mine,” Hall said. “They are extremely interested in the culture of that era. And believe me, when you go down into a coal mine, it’s authentic.”
Sports marketing also has become popular. Hall said the 2017 Pennsylvania Junior Wrestling State Championships, held at Mohegan Sun Arena in March, had an economic impact of $1.5 million on the county. She said the event will return in 2018.
Hall said the visitors bureau also hopes to bring large hockey and soccer events to the region.
“Thousands of people attend these events,” she said. “And they eat at local restaurants, they buy gas and souvenirs, and they patronize our businesses. However, this is a very competitive market.”
C. David Pedri, Luzerne County manager, said his vision for increased tourism in the county is to fully utilize and maximize the beautiful natural surroundings.
“The river, mountains and trails could be shown to be a Pocono destination much like the Jim Thorpe area and the Williamsport River Walk,” Pedri said. “I’d like people to think of Luzerne County in the same category as these other Pocono destinations.”
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.
• What: Luzerne County Convention and Visitors Bureau
• Address: 56 Public Square, Wilkes-Barre
• Hours: Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
• Phone: 888-905-2872
• Website: www.tourNEPA.com