Friday, May 13th, 2022
Area tourism coming back
Businesses took a hit from COVID
By Leslie Gartrell
Photo by Leslie Gartrell/The Daily Standard
Auglaize County Commissioner and organizer for the non-profit Friends of the St. Marys Theater and Grand Opera House Doug Spencer, center left, leads a tour of the opera house during the annual Greater Grand Lake Visitors Region awards reception on Thursday.
ST. MARYS - Tourism is on the rebound in Mercer and Auglaize counties, according to area tourism officials.
During Thursday's annual Greater Grand Lake Region Visitors Center's annual awards reception, executive director Donna Grube gave a report on 2021 tourism figures and highlighted some area attractions. Recipients of the Stahr award and ambassador of the year also were presented during the reception held at the St. Marys Theater and Grand Opera House, which is undergoing major renovations.
Grube reported lodging collections increased 31% in 2021, highlighting a rebound year as people began traveling again after pandemic restrictions had loosened.
Tourism spending also increased from $51.3 million in 2020 to $74,324,375 in 2021, according to figures provided by the visitors center.
Total gross room sales for 2021 were $7.8 million - an increase of more than $2.5 million compared to 2020. In 2021, hotel guests spent $23.4 million on gasoline, oil and auto repairs, compared with $16.1 million in 2020; $27.3 million on restaurants and clubs, compared with $18.8 million in 2020; $6.3 million on entertainment and recreation, compared with $4.3 million in 2020; and $9.4 million in general retail purchases compared with $6.5 million in 2020.
Photo by Daily Standard Staff
Tourism income in Mercer and Auglaize counties was up from 2020, a year hit hard by the COVIS-10 pandemic. Total numbers are based on a formula.
Those dollars help support 3,700 jobs, Grube said. Overall, tourism in the past five years has generated more than $355 million to the economies of Mercer and Auglaize Counties.
"We're just about back to a record year again in 2021, so that was a big positive," Grube said.
In 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, lodging tax collections decreased by 36%. Many visitors to the area in 2020 came to enjoy outdoor activities, fresh air and improved lake quality, she said.
Lake usage was up in 2021, Grube said, noting there were no algal toxin warnings in 2021 except for two days at Villa Nova Beach in Auglaize County.
Grube said several area tourism investments and developments are underway. They include Boardwalk Village in Celina, Fort Recovery Morvilius Opera House and St. Marys Theater and Grand Opera House, St. Marys Reservoir Mill and Crossroads of Northwest Ohio, a 250-acre development featuring hotels, restaurants and shopping along I-75 in northern Auglaize County.
Grube said the Greater Grand Lake Region Visitors Center plans to increase its promotion of tourism. The center will produce five videos highlighting tourism opportunities in New Bremen, Celina, St. Marys, Fort Recovery and Wapakoneta, she said.
Grube said the center has increased its advertising budget for television, radio, digital billboards and video ads.
A number of full-age ads are planned in travel magazines. The marketing plan tops more than $190,000 for 2022, she said.
Photo by Leslie Gartrell/The Daily Standard
From left, Michael Burkholder, St. Marys manager of industrial and community development, Kraig Noble, St. Marys assistant law director, and Greg Foxhoven, St. Marys city safety and service director, accept the 2021 Stahr Award on behalf of the city.
Moving on to awards, the 2021 Stahr award was presented to the City of St. Marys for improvements to the downtown canal corridor and parks.
The beginning of the city's transformation dates back to 2009 with the demolition of dilapidated cotton mill buildings, award presenters Jackie Martell and Logon O'Neill said.
Lock 13 was uncovered by the demolition after staying hidden under the buildings for more than 75 years. Lock 13 was restored, and a scenic pedestrian walkway, lighting, landscaping and informational signage was added to the area, Martell said.
The path compliments a scenic pathway that travels from KC Geiger Park through the center of the city, past Lock 13 north to 40 Acre Pond and Lock 14, they said.
St. Marys has also continued to enhance the Miami-Erie Canal Corridor through Mill Park, which includes the rescued Reservoir Mill Building, a splash pad, stone shelter house, landscaping and soon will be home to St. Marys' All Abilities Park.
"It is hard to imagine that it was once, not that long ago, an industrial storage site," Martell said.
The center's Ambassador of the Year award, the agency's highest honor given to an individual for significant contributions to the tourism industry and/or visitor's center, went to Matt Berry.
The Celina resident served as the visitor center's board president in 2018, and when asked to step up to the presidency again in 2024 he said he would be honored to do so, award presenter Nick Moeller said.
"Our 2021 ambassador of the year is someone who has truly put themselves out there to help promote tourism," Moeller said. "You would never guess he is the person in the dancing Seymour the Seagull costume that has greeted Grand Lake Marathon runners for years, making kids smile, giving high-5s and encouraging runners to keep on running during the race."
Berry was recognized for his willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty, from embodying Seymour the Seagull, taking promotional photos along the Brews-N-Vines trail to his leadership at the visitors center.
Prior to the banquet, Auglaize County commissioner Doug Spencer and organizer for the non-profit Friends of the St. Marys Theater and Grand Opera House lead a tour of the building for guests.
Spencer said the group has received a $250,000 Target of Opportunity state grant and $40,000 in matching funds from the friends group. The grant funds will be used to restore the facade of the building, he said.
Work on the building has started in the form of roof improvements and renovations to the downstairs theater. Spencer also ran a video showing a 3-D conceptual tour of the building with potential upgrades.
The theater would stay true to its roots, keeping the red and white color scheme and red theater seats residents may remember from the theater's operational days.
The theater will include a mix of old and new features including digital movie posters and original murals. A 1951 popcorn machine is being repaired and hopefully can be used again.
While most of the project will aim to revitalize some of the most iconic parts of the theater, organizers hope to add an outdoor space that would face South Street. Part of the space would be covered in astroturf and provide an area for movies, concerts and other activities, Spencer said.
Organizers hope to have a large door that could open and close behind the existing theater's stage, allowing performances to start inside and extend outside toward the green space.
A representative from the Lima Symphony Orchestra attending Thursday's awards luncheon announced the symphony will kick off the city of St. Marys' bicentennial on Jan. 22, 2023, with a harp by candlelight performance.