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Belmont Tourism angling for a comeback, grants available

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — The COVID-19 pandemic dealt a blow to tourism in Belmont County, but tourism Director Barb Ballint voiced hope for a turnaround in 2021 and said some grant funding is available to help events and attractions get back on their feet.

Ballint delivered her fourth quarter 2020 report to the commissioners Wednesday.

“It was a tough year for the tourism industry. We were probably one of the hardest-hit industries due to the pandemic,” she said. “We had to adjust to that. The tourism office used our platform as a resource of information, which helped many people navigate.”

Beloved traditions such as the Barnesville Pumpkin Festival, the full Belmont County Fair and newer events such as the Blame My Roots Fest country music festival were all casualties of the pandemic.

“Many of the events and attractions that we market were either canceled or closed. Our office stayed remarkably busy, and we developed new strategies and still were able to support our mission,” she said.

Belmont County Commissioner Jerry Echemann inquired about income from hotels in the county. Ballint said lodging tax receipts were down more than 40 percent. The tourism council’s budget was cut by 32 percent, but had been able to put aside a “rainy day fund” between 2015 and 2017 and was able to retain all four employees.

In addition, the department is now preparing its yearly round of grants to be awarded in March. Many recipients had to return their grant money in 2020, since their events were canceled. Ballint said least 80 percent of the funds had to be returned.

“We came in last year about $150,000 under budget. A lot of that is because that grant money was returned,” she said. “That allows us to still offer grants this year. We have sent out those applications in the hope that events will happen.”

The amount of grant funding available is not certain yet. Ballint said last year there were more than 50 applications with 44 organizations receiving grants, but with the uncertainty of the future, some may not be planning events because of the time and effort involved. The deadline for the applications is Feb. 14. The tourism council can be reached at 740-695-4356.

Ballint said her department’s strategies during the pandemic were recognized by organizations such as the Ohio Travel Association during its tourism conference in October, when Belmont County’s department received the Spirit of Community Award and the Spirit of Innovation Award.

Her office hosted many online puzzles and virtual tours, some of which were highlighted during a presentation by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine.

“It was a pretty exciting time for us,” Ballint said. “We were fortunate to get out of our comfort zone. I think it benefited our office.”

The pandemic delayed the reopening of the Belmont County Heritage Museum — formerly the Belmont County Sheriff’s Residence Museum — now with more displays. Ballint said while the museum had to be closed in November, she looks forward to reopening in the spring.

“During the short period of time that we were open, we had over 125 visitors to the museum,” she said. “I’m very excited about when we will be able to open that up again. … We’ll have some really unique events there that will get people stopping and coming to that museum.”

The commissioners also fielded questions from Richard Hord of Martins Ferry, who asked if there were any plans for the former jail building on the courthouse plaza. He suggested using the structure for records storage.

“I can’t foresee any near-term decision on how we would use that,” Echemann said. “It’s certainly a space we wish we could utilize in some way, shape or form if the opportunity presents itself.”

“It’s not at the top of the list right now,” Commissioner Josh Meyer said, adding they were always on the lookout for potential uses should renovation be financially feasible.

The commissioners also noted the new consolidated county court and prosecutor’s office is close to completion and furniture should be moved in soon. The building could be occupied in late winter.

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