Tourism Poised for More Growth in Ohio Valley
By LINDA COMINS
Tourism remains steady on both sides of the Ohio River, with a strong potential for growth in the industry throughout the region.
Frank O’Brien, executive director of the Wheeling Convention and Visitors Bureau, said, “We are absolutely on target to stimulate additional growth in Wheeling’s tourism market, primarily because of a number of agencies working together to promote not only historical attractions but also to market some of the great events that we have in Wheeling every year.”
Taking a broader perspective, he praised Oglebay Park’s new low-impact adventure bike riding and obstacle course and “cool” developments at Grand Vue Park in Moundsville.
O’Brien said, “That works for the whole region. You have to be regional in your thinking.”
Tourists are “looking for a quality, fun experience that is affordable. Wheeling and the Upper Ohio Valley can provide that,” he said.
Eugene “Doc” Householder, executive director of the Belmont County Tourism Council, said, “We’re looking for a busy year … Our grant program is working out very good.”
He explained that Belmont County’s grant program provides funds to make physical improvements to museums of all sizes and other tourist attractions. The council also works to promote and expand festivals in various communities.
“We’re getting all those facilities up in good shape,” Householder said. “People running them are energized. We’re in good shape in Belmont County.”
Visitors’ interest in attractions in the county is strong. “We see them growing, especially in Barnesville,” he said, adding that the Belmont County Victorian Mansion Museum has “some good people running it. It’s doing quite well.”
Morristown, home of the restored Black Horse Inn, had “two or three nice events over there this year,” he said. “Most of the other towns are seeing what’s happening.”
Staff from the tourism council will be participating in four upcoming travel shows, including the Great Vacation AAA Show in Columbus. Householder said, “They bring in a lot of tour operators. We’ll definitely get some business for the motels.”
O’Brien said the CVB provides marketing assistance to events such as arts and crafts festivals and waterfront festivals and concerts. ‘We continue to make that support in order to market outside the area. The ultimate goal is bringing more visitors to Wheeling and Ohio County,” he said.
Citing recent success of partnership and marketing for the Winter Festival of Lights, he said, “We partnered with Oglebay to advertise heavily in the Pittsburgh market. Those numbers, at least preliminarily, are very strong.”
Explaining the significance of visitors’ numbers, O’Brien said if 250,000 people go to Oglebay Park to see the lighting show, they spend an estimated $14 million in the Wheeling area at hotels, restaurants, other attractions and gas stations. “It’s a big deal,” he remarked.
O’Brien said the Capitol Theatre continues to deliver on one of its promises, made upon reopening in 2009, to get at least 50,000 people to attend shows at the Wheeling venue. “We’ve had 52,000 to 54,000 attendees through all of those years, from 2009 to 2016,” he said.
Events at the Capitol generate “several million dollars in spending by people going to see shows,” he said. “It’s not necessarily just for ticket prices. Nearly 80 percent (of attendees) will got out to eat either before or after a show. It’s just remarkable.”
The theater is adding midweek programming, on Tuesday and Wednesday, to complement the already popular schedule of Friday and Saturday events, he said.
Looking ahead, O’Brien said, “I see opportunities for continued growth in Wheeling. I’m excited with some of the new construction. As more people work in downtown Wheeling, they will become more aware of arts and culture and waterfront events. They’ll come back, even when they’re not working. That stimulates the economy.”
Destination retail ventures, such as Cabela’s at The Highlands, generate a significant number of people. Although competition from casinos in Ohio and Pennsylvania is “incredibly tough,” O’Brien thinks Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack is on track by creating a more positive visitor experience.
He said the CVB continues to take an active role in promoting Wheeling as an excellent destination by attending travel and trade shows, including the American Bus Association event held in Cleveland and the AAA travel show in Columbus.
For individual families and groups, “Wheeling is high on their list because of diverse and multiple types of things to see,” he said.