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Cohen’s career marked by leadership, service

Impressive Legacy
Jack Cohen and Tom Panei holding a painting by Panei on June 6, 2011. Submitted photo

When Jack Cohen, longtime president of the Butler County Tourism & Convention Bureau, owned a Safari Sam’s franchise in Cranberry Township, Glenn Anderson, then a Butler County commissioner, asked to come down and see how Cohen ran the business.

Anderson said he had been thinking about tourism in the county.

During that visit in the early 1990s, Anderson discussed with Cohen the potential for a bed tax and support from tourism-based businesses to initiate a tourism group in the county.

“So I said yeah, I would help set it up, and that’s when I found out I was the one setting it up,” Cohen recalled with a chuckle.

Cohen, not one to lollygag when a project is at hand, began contacting owners of businesses across the county that fell into the category of tourism, like campgrounds, hotels, golf courses, restaurants and others.

He hoped to form a committee of business owners who would travel to Harrisburg with him to learn about tourism from the Pennsylvania Tourism Office, which is the official tourism arm of the state Department of Community and Economic Development.

Cohen tried to convince eight to 10 of those business owners that Butler County needed a tourism bureau and asked them to be on the committee and travel to Harrisburg with him.

“Sure enough, they agreed,” he said.

The committee learned the requirements of an official county tourism group, like bylaws and other facets of such an organization, plus any other information they would need to move forward with forming a tourism organization in Butler County.

With high hopes, the group returned to Butler and presented what they had learned to the county commissioners.

“They accepted it,” Cohen said.

So he and his cohorts moved on to the next step.

“We picked a board of directors and started meeting, and started the process of trying to figure out what to do with the funding,” Cohen said.

He said the Butler County Tourism & Convention Bureau officially opened in 2002 in a small office in Cranberry Township.

The entity’s first check from the county’s new bed tax — which collects a fee from each hotel room occupied that supports the tourism bureau — was $500,000, Cohen said.

Today, the bureau’s home is a large former bed-and-breakfast in Zelienople, as the small office was quickly outgrown.

“We continued to grow and we are still doing that,” he said. “I love what I do and I’ve had fun doing it.”

Trying out the movable climbing wall at Safari Sam's in Cranberry Township, during Cranberry Rotary Honors Young Volunteers night on Dec. 14, 2000, are, from left, Ron Gigler, Rotarian; David Manes, 14; Jamie Stekler, 11 (climbing wall); Megan Seger, 10; Brian Manes, 10; P.J. Lynd, Rotarian, and Jack Cohen, Rotarian and president of Safari Sam. Butler Eagle file photo
Meager beginnings

Cohen was born at Magee-Womens Hospital on Sept. 29, 1954, and grew up in the Stanton Heights neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

He said the first several years of his life went along as any other kid of that era, until he was 9 years old.

“My mom got very sick and wound up being paralyzed the rest of her life,” Cohen said. “She lived to be 73.”

Cohen, the middle child among his four siblings, had a difficult time after that, as his father worked three or four jobs to support the family and his ailing wife.

“I don’t believe they had insurance back then,” he said of his parents.

Cohen went to work before graduating from Peabody High School.

“I would usually leave my check at home so it could be used for our family,” he said. “Not always, but you’ve got to help out.”

He said his parents made sure their five children attended services each week at the synagogue.

“I had a bar mitzvah in 1967,” Cohen said.

He enrolled in classes in the hospitality and food service program at Community College of Allegheny County in the early 1970s after his high school graduation.

His first job as an adult was with the Wendy’s corporation.

“I opened Wendy’s restaurants in the Pittsburgh area, and I worked for them for 13 years,” Cohen said.

Young adult

He looks back on his career with Wendy’s very fondly.

“I got very lucky,” Cohen said. “They taught me a lot of great things and got me moving forward.”

Wendy’s got lucky as well, having hired Cohen to oversee its Pittsburgh interests.

“We won a Gold Spatula from (the late Wendy’s founder) Dave Thomas for quality service,” Cohen said.

He eventually placed a Wendy’s on New Castle Road in Butler Township.

“That was the last store I worked at,” Cohen recalled.

He moved to New Jersey to set up restaurants in Passaic County, but when he and his wife found they were expecting their first child in 1981, they decided to return to family in the Pittsburgh area.

“We were driving home and thinking, ‘Hey, what did we just do? We have no jobs, no insurance and we’re driving home,’” Cohen said.

Upon their arrival in the land of the three rivers, Cohen immediately began making calls looking for work.

“The next thing you know, I’m working for Chuck E. Cheese,” he said.

He worked at the Bridgeville Chuck E. Cheese for a time, then was promoted to a position managing all four locations in the Pittsburgh area.

In 1990, Cohen left Chuck E. Cheese and opened a Safari Sam’s location in Cranberry Township in a small plaza at the intersection of Route 19 and Rowan Road.

He opened another Safari Sam’s franchise in Moon Township as well, and earned the Sam Walton Business of the Year award for his two locations.

During his tenure at Safari Sam’s, Cohen joined the International Association for the Leisure and Entertainment Industry.

“I used that to build Safari Sam’s and I became the president of that association,” he said.

Cohen recalls traveling to Disneyland Paris in that capacity to explain to entertainment and leisure professionals gathered from around the world why they should join the group.

“There were people there from 27 different countries,” he said. “My 15-minute speech lasted over an hour because I had to wait for the translators (to interpret from English to the various languages.)”

After the event, he and his wife were at a bus stop waiting for a trip back to their hotel when they saw a man pickpocket another man with two children.

The pickpocket made the mistake of running in Cohen’s direction.

“I put him in a full nelson and we got the wallet back and gave it to the man,” Cohen calmly recalled. “He was probably cussing at me in French. I would have done that anywhere I was.”

In September 1994, Cohen sold his Safari Sam’s franchise.

“I had fun there every day,” he said of the indoor children’s climbing and play venue.

Jack Cohen, director of the Butler County Tourism and Convention Bureau, at his office in Zelienople on Jan. 31, 2011. Butler Eagle photo
Talkin’ tourism

At about the same time, Todd Wehr, co-owner of Bear Run Campground on the shores of Lake Arthur, was looking to boost tourism in the county.

Wehr was told by a marketing professor at Slippery Rock University to contact Cohen, which he did.

“Once he got on board, Jack really helped rally the troops, who were the stakeholders in the industry,” Wehr said of Cohen.

He said Cohen’s skill at public speaking and leadership boosted the group’s mission to start a tourism entity.

“Things really started congealing,” Wehr said. “It was a pleasure getting Jack involved.”

He said Cohen’s perspective and enthusiasm in those days were really contagious.

“He understood what was needed from the various stakeholders,” Wehr said. “He understood how synergy happens with nonprofit organizations, he understood the need to enhance membership and the unique opportunities that were indigenous to our area.”

Wehr said Jerry Schreibeis was hired as the new tourism bureau’s first executive director, but when he died unexpectedly only two years later, Cohen decided to step in to lead the bureau.

“He was the man for the job,” Wehr said.

Paula Slomer started out at the tourism bureau in 2005 as a graphic designer and worked her way up to the position of marketing and media manager, all the while alongside Cohen.

“He’s essentially a visionary,” Slomer said. “There were times when I had to keep him grounded when he had his crazy ideas, but some of those crazy ideas really put Butler County on the map.”

She remembered hearing for many years the county should have a festival to celebrate the Jeep’s creation in Butler, and Cohen trying to get different groups to put together such a festival.

“He was not getting any takers, so he said ‘We are putting together a Jeep fest,’” Slomer said. “He’s definitely the idea man.”

Jack Cohen, the Butler County tourism president, speaks at the 2013 Jeep Festival luncheon at VA Butler Healthcare in May 2013. Butler Eagle file photo

She called Cohen “a dog on a bone” when it comes to projects he feels will improve Butler County, as well as a loving husband, father and grandfather.

“He’s a family man, but also one who just cares a lot and passionately about people, the community and the global community,” Slomer said.

She will think of Cohen every time she hears the Led Zeppelin song “Stairway to Heaven,” which was his signal that everyone at the office could go home when he “played” it on the office player piano.

“Even before (we got the piano), if we hear “Stairway to Heaven,” that meant everyone could go home,” Slomer said.

Retirement plans

Cohen said he received an award this year from the Pennsylvania Tourism Office recognizing his achievements in tourism, as well as a lifetime achievement award from the state Lodging and Restaurant Association.

“But I’m not dead yet,” he said. “I’m not done yet. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring.”

He plans to do consulting work or help nonprofit groups in any way he can.

“There are a lot of nonprofits that mean a lot to me and if I can help them, I will,” Cohen said.

Whatever he chooses to do, the inimitable Jack Cohen said one thing is for sure, he’ll do it in Butler County.

“This is home for me, because I never had that as a kid,” he said.

Jack Cohen, executive director of the Butler County Tourism & Convention Bureau, talks on the phone Sept. 18, 2006, as furniture is moved into the bureau's new site. Butler Eagle file photo
Jack Cohen, director of the Butler County Tourism & Convention Bureau, sits in his office in Zelienople on Monday, Jan. 31, 2011. Butler Eagle file photo

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