When Lancaster-based commercial real estate company JTDH bought 10.7 acres in Bethel Township in September, the new owners knew exactly what they wanted to do with the land.
Sitting between Route 22 and Interstate 78 on Legionaire Drive, the property seemed perfectly suited to hold a convenience store such as Sheetz or Turkey Hill and still have enough room for a fast-food restaurant.
But after the $75,000 purchase in September, the phone started ringing from hotel development companies wondering what was planned for the site.
Then David Holm, a member of the JTDH group, started crunching numbers for the prospects of a hotel at the property.
"When we started to pull this data together, the thought process changed almost completely," he said.
Holm found out what many visitors to Lebanon County discover: that the county is woefully under-served by the hotel industry, with only about 750 rooms available. That could change in the next few years, as a number of possible hotel projects have cropped up in the county, according to local officials and developers.
Until then, the county watches as potential tourist dollars leave the county and go to neighboring Dauphin, Lancaster and Berks counties, all of which have far more available hotel rooms.
It's a frustrating part of Dennis Grumbine's position as CEO of the Lebanon Valley Expo Center in North Cornwall Township. He said one of the first thing visitors ask for when they call the center for a potential booking is how many hotel rooms are available within a 10-mile radius.
"And that's kind of where we fall on our sword," he said. "I would say once the crack of the door opens and you see a few of those projects open up, you're going to see more coming. Just not yet."
In addition to the possible JTDH hotel project, North Annville Township developer H.R. Weaver has two properties where the company could build a hotel. One is in its Flightpath Park in South Londonderry Township, where preliminary plans for one lot include a hotel; the other is on Route 422 in North Annville Township, where a retail center it's currently building includes plans for a hotel.
Plans for North Cornwall Commons, the large, mixed-use development project near the expo center, include a hotel as well.
The proposed mixed-use Preserve at Historic Cornwall Village in Cornwall includes a hotel with a waterpark.
None of the projects has a hotel committed to its properties yet. Annette Cassel Means, an associate broker at High Associates in Harrisburg, said there could be an announcement on a hotel at the Route 422 location in the spring.
Those and others are the projects that Grumbine has heard rumblings about for years, but none has come to fruition.
"We lose credibility when we tell (visitors), 'Yes, we're getting hotels here and there and in this place,'" he said, "but then they come here and have to drive a half-hour to an hour for a hotel room," he said.
Currently, there are pockets of hotels in the Lebanon area and in Union Township off Interstate 81 near the I-78 split. But, Grumbine said, the Holiday Inn Express just outside Lebanon on Route 422 was the last hotel built in the county, and that went up about six years ago.
"Compared to the hotel growth our neighbors have experienced, we're behind," he said. "Our neighbors have been great to us — they're very accommodating. It's just tough to see that money leave the county."
All of Lebanon County's neighbors have more hotel rooms than it has. It's dwarfed by Dauphin (more than 8,000 rooms) and Lancaster (almost 7,000 rooms) counties, according to statistics from local tourism associations.
Grumbine said the average traveler spends about $100 a day, not including a hotel room. Large events at the expo center attract more than 1,000 visitors, so he said he's routinely sending about 600 to 800 tourists to hotels outside the county from the approximately 100 events the expo center has each year.
When those tourists are spending two to three days at the expo center — but then leaving the county at night — the potential loss of dollars quickly multiplies.
"And those dollars roll over seven times in the community," Grumbine said. "(Tourism) is one of the greatest economic impacts there is."
Holm further investigated the hotel proposition for his property and discovered state programs that help fund hotel construction, including the First Industries Tourism Program, which offers grants of up to $250,000 for planning purposes on a tourism project. He hasn't yet applied for it.
Added with the demand — Holm said he received three unsolicited calls from hoteliers and found three more he said may be interested — and it was a no-brainer to transition the property to a possible hotel use. Currently there are plans to build a 71-room hotel on the property.
He said his company worked for about a month on putting together sketch plans and renderings for a convenience store but had no reservations about putting them on the back burner.
"There is a demand in Lebanon County for hotel projects," Holm said. "We see that now."