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Blair convention center explores options

Those in charge of the Blair County Convention Center are starting to think about how the facility can attract future business in light of coronavirus restrictions preventing large banquets and gatherings.

Unlike convention centers operating in metropolitan areas and/or in structures where social distancing might be difficult, Blair County’s convention center has multiple rooms and large rooms with dividers.

If Blair County stays in the yellow phase where gatherings of up to 25 people are permitted with social distancing, then perhaps the convention center can be zoned into areas for groups of 25, authority Chairman Richard Karcher suggested during an authority meeting convened Wednesday by teleconference.

“What we have here is space … maybe more so than anybody else in the county,” Karcher said.

Under the state’s COVID-19 restrictions, the convention center is prohibited from hosting social events in its “hospitality” classification, according to Executive Director Rocco Alianiello said.

It could host a professional meeting of no more than 25 people, he said.

To host more than 25, Blair County will need to be in the state’s green phase where coronavirus-related restrictions are further eased. But those participating in the teleconference said they don’t know when Blair County will move to green, a transition resting with Gov. Tom Wolf.

“It’s very difficult to be able to determine what we’re going to be able to do and when we’ll be able to do it,” Alianiello said.

Sales and Marketing Director Tara Saltzburg said one avenue she’s exploring is promotion of the convention center to groups more comfortable coming to Blair County than heading to a larger facility. Groups could be divided among rooms to comply with restrictions on the size of gatherings, she said, and maintain social distancing.

Saltzburg also identified virtual meetings, an option that has become more common during the pandemic, as a future competitor for convention center business.

“That’s a new challenge for our industry,” she said.

The convention center has been closed since March when the governor issued a statewide stay-at-home order because of the coronavirus pandemic. Events and meetings on the facility’s calendar have been canceled or remain in limbo.

With no revenue coming in, Alianiello reported to the authority that the convention center applied for and secured a $175,000 Paycheck Protection Program loan through First National Bank.

The loan, available through the Small Business Association to business entities meeting qualifications, can be forgiven if the convention center uses the money for payroll and building-related costs, such as utilities, and meets other SBA requirements.

While the convention center authority furloughed eight full-time and 20 part-time employees, it currently retains four full-time employees: Alianiello, Saltz­burg, Facilities Director Steve Despot and Finance Director Barbara Wise. The PPP money, according to information offered during the meeting, can be used to cover their salaries.

It also can also be used to cover convention center’s utility bills that Despot said have dropped from $20,000 to about $7,000 a month, because of minimum usage.

If the convention center’s use of the loan fails to meet SBA’s rules for forgiveness, the authority has $1.4 million in a reserve account that it could tap to repay the loan.

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