Ohio Valley Tourism Driving Local Job Markets
By ALAN OLSON
WHEELING – Several of Ohio and Marshall counties’ are primarily tourist destinations, which not only brings in money from visitors to the area and serves as a hot spot, but also creates a distinct need for local workers of varying skill sets.
Frank O’Brien, executive director of the Wheeling-Ohio County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, said with an increased focus on tourism to the region in recent years, local hotspots such as the Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack and Oglebay Park have seen not only increased business, but increased opportunity to take on new employees.
“Tourism is a growth industry in West Virginia. About 10 percent of the workforce in Ohio County works in some sort of tourism or hospitality-oriented business. And when you look at the fact that these are tourism drivers … it drives people to the market.”
O’Brien said Wheeling Island, as well as Oglebay, each bring more than a million people to the city each year. Further tourism opportunities, such as the Upper Ohio Valley Italian Heritage Festival and other regular events held at the waterfront, pose another opportunity to bring people here, while allowing local vendors to set up shop during highly popular events.
“Our goal is to get people to spend at least one night in the area, where they buy food, buy gas, they may need to stop at a drug store. That’s how the economic impact is calculated.”
In addition, he added that shows performed at the Capitol Theatre always need stagehands to assist in constructing and managing the set, which are hired locally.
“When these Broadway shows come to Wheeling and set up their productions, all those stagehands are pulled from the local area. They’ll be called in, they might need as many as 50 stagehands to help set up and tear down the show.”
O’Brien added that new businesses coming to the city are often started by people who decided to make Wheeling their home and base of operations, a process which begins from tourism.
“Even the brand new businesses that come to Wheeling, they had to be a visitor first,” he said.
In Marshall County, Grand Vue Park Manager Craig White said they nearly triple their employee ranks during the tourist season, between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
“Grand Vue, we go from maybe 40 employees throughout our slow season to maybe 110 to 120 employees in the busy season,” White said. “The zipline, for instance, that’s April through November. When Memorial Day hits, the pool opens and we take in even more employees. In April, you start a little more on wedding season and banquets, and June, July are a huge wedding period. We have even more events going on, so we need even more employees to help take care of our guests.”
White added that tourism to the area, while obviously helping the park overall, tends to see visitors drawn to specific aspects of the park, compared to local regulars.
“When you’re talking miniature golf, the pool, shelter rentals and disc golf, those are what’s drawing the locals and enabling repeat business. The cabins … are where you’ll see more tourists come at that time. Even if they have one family member here, the rest don’t live here, so they’re coming from out of the area.”
Other tourist destinations, such as the former West Virginia Penitentiary, also draw crowds for their more specialized services. The former penitentiary, for example, drew production crews for the Netflix series “Mindhunter” last year due to its continued upkeep of the former facility. But the rest of the time, dozens of employees are drawn in continuously for its hallmark attraction – touring the facility, both for its standard tours, which hire dozens of people during the fall months, and seven people full-time on maintenance at the Moundsville center.
During the Halloween season, upward of 60 to 70 people are hired to serve as mock prison guards, ghostly assistants and other supernatural entities for the Dungeon of Horrors tours, which serves as a haunted house-style attraction through fabricated haunt attractions, with some parts of the prison serving its classic use as an imposing building of stone and iron.
Moundsville Economic Development Council Executive Director Suzanne Park estimated that since tours began, more than 980,000 visitors have passed through the halls of the prison for paranormal research or more leisurely guided tours, with recent estimates putting the visitor count around 40,000 people last year.