Monday, September 03, 2001

Warren Co. bucks tourism decline

Kings Island, The Beach, shops draw bigger crowds

By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The news on Tristate tourism isn't all bad: Visitors poured steadily into Warren County this summer, undeterred by riots in downtown Cincinnati, the Comair strike or softness in the national economy.

        And even parts of the Tristate that suffered a drought of tourists see a turnaround in the coming months.

        Paramount's Kings Island, which brings in about half of Warren County's 6.3 million annual visitors, said attendance is slightly above both last year and projections for this year.

        “Our new rides this year were a home run,” spokesman Jeffrey Siebert said. “We're pretty pleased with our season.”

        Several children's rides debuted this year, including Rugrats Runaway Reptar, the world's first inverted kiddie coaster.

        Numbers also are up at The Beach, according to Margaret Drexel, marketing director of the Warren County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

        This despite rainfall that was 6 inches above normal for June through August, Mr. Siebert said, that fell, on average, about every other day.

        While downtown and Northern Kentucky tourism venues like the Reds, Newport Aquarium, Cincinnati Museum Center and hotels reported a slump this year, other attractions and shops in Warren County are reporting solid summers.

        Lebanon shopkeepers credit a new marketing effort by the Lebanon Antique Dealers and Merchants Association as well as the return of its tourist train, the Turtle Creek & Lebanon Railway.

        “I've just had a very, very good year,” said Lois Bradford, owner of Fella Bella, a children's clothing shop in the city's historic downtown.

        The train itself has tallied 16,000 passengers since it returned in early May, General Manager Guy Marino said. With September, October and December still to go, the train already has surpassed the 12,500 riders it had last year, when it was forced to operate out of Mason while the Lebanon track was repaired.

        County tourism officials worried the April riots in

        Cincinnati might affect their business, but that concern turned out to be unfounded, Ms. Drexel said.

        “If anything, it boosted our hotels,” she said. “... Maybe they'd stay here and spend most of their time here, but they might do a day trip to Cincinnati, and we've encouraged that.”

        The economic slowdown and high gas prices have not had a drastic effect in Warren County.

        “People will still want to get away from home,” said Jim Epperson, deputy director of the Ohio Department of Tourism. They'll just keep their trips shorter and closer to home, he said — just the sort of travel that fuels Ohio's tourism industry.

        Early indications are that tourism has been flat or down slightly statewide and nationally this summer, Mr. Epperson said.

        In Warren, hotel business was down about 10 percent in the spring, Ms. Drexel said, but it turned around in July. Stays were up almost 25 percent compared to July 2000, based on the county's lodging tax receipts.

        Cincinnati's hotels also saw improvement as the summer wore on and people stopped calling daily with safety concerns, according to Mike Wilson, president of the Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau.

        South of the river, hotel occupancy through May was down about 14 percent from last year, said Tom Caradonio, president of the Northern Kentucky Convention and Visitors Bureau. He expects numbers to remain down in June and July because of the Comair strike, which canceled all flights from March 26 to July 2.

        Each day of canceled flights cost Northern Kentucky 25,000 visitors, Mr. Caradonio said.

        Both sides of the river also were hurt by the Reds' losing record and the sidelining by injury of star player Ken Griffey Jr. for most of the season's first half.

        The team has averaged 24,639 spectators a game so far in 2001, team officials said, compared to 31,431 a game last year.

        Still, Sheree Allgood, also of the Northern Kentucky bureau, sees some promising “blips on the radar.” Comair is back to 664 flights a day out of more than 800 pre-strike, and the Newport on the Levee entertainment complex opens in October.

        The new Reds ballpark for 2003, the Ohio Bicentennial, the new Contemporary Arts Center and the Underground Railroad museum will give visitors even more reasons to spend their vacation dollars here in the next few years, Mr. Wilson predicted.


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