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Tourism takes a hit, expands in new ways

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — The coronavirus pandemic has hit tourism hard in Belmont County, tourism council Director Barb Ballint said in her quarterly report to the Belmont County Board of Commissioners last week.

On Wednesday, Ballint said this was expected and that her office continues to find new ways to promote the area. The pandemic took its toll by causing popular attractions in Belmont County such as the Barnesville Pumpkin Festival, the Belmont County Fair and Blame My Roots Fest country music festival to be canceled.

“Usually this is my favorite report, because I get to talk about our three premiere events,” she said. “We know that those were either canceled or restructured. Because of that and other situations, our lodging tax receipts have definitely plummeted. … September was a huge hit for us. We can only imagine that October, November and December are going to be basically the same.”

Lodging tax receipts for July came to $30,965.50 — down from $58,359.04 in 2019. August’s receipts were $24,787.80 compared to $71,563.92 in 2019. September’s totaled $18,371.83 but $50,231.98 in 2019. The total difference from last year so far is $74,125.13, down from $180,154.94 last year.

“I was hoping I’d be able to give you a better report than I did the second quarter, but unfortunately we are all still going through these trying times with the pandemic,” she said.

She commended the volunteers at the Belmont County Fair and the Barnesville Pumpkin Festival, which went forward with the Junior Fair and Pumpkin Weigh-Off, respectively.

“They had to make some really tough choices,” she said. “They did that knowing it was going to cost their organizations and the local economy a lot of funds.”

However, Ballint said there is still potential for growth and to make the most of Belmont County’s attractions.

“We’re in a good place, I feel, being in Appalachian Ohio, because the trend is outdoor adventure and we have those venues that offer that to families and visitors. We can offer them a safe place to visit and travel to,” she said, adding her office is adjusting marketing efforts with this in mind.

One of the initiatives is the Hidden Treasures of Belmont County geocaches at various landmarks throughout Belmont County. Ballint said close to 100 people have completed the tour so far, and several spent the night at local lodging facilities, since the tour can take two days to complete. From the geocache log, Ballint has determined visitors arrived from as far away as Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Illonois.

“They are spread from the west to the east, from the north to the south,” she said. “We know that we are bringing visitors to the area.”

Online activities are also keeping people engaged.

“We upped our game with our social media platforms,” she said, pointing out attractions and popular virtual puzzles. “People are reading our home page to see what else there is to do in Belmont County.”

One of the popular blogs on the council’s social media is Cabin Fever. Another is the live feed of Barnesville’s Pumpkin Weigh-Off, which has garnered considerable hits.

“The pumpkin didn’t break a record, but the number of viewers definitely broke a record. Never in the history of the Pumpkin Festival has there been 57,000 people watch the weigh-offs, and they did that on our Facebook page (as of Sept. 30). … Canada, Texas, people all over the country were watching that.”

She added that the tourism council has had 17,000 followers on its social media platforms.

Another successful move was reopening the Belmont County Heritage Museum under this new name with two new displays. She said the museum has attracted attention.

“Who would have thought opening a museum during this time would have been successful?” she said.

Her office was also able to provide grants totalling $21,189.66 to seven different museums in Belmont County.

In recognition of its efforts, the Ohio Travel Association recently recognized her office with two awards.

The Belmont County Board of Commissioners commended her office’s work.

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