JEFFERSON — A group of local elected officials, representatives of the tourism industry and local stakeholders attended an Ashtabula County Board of Commissioners meeting on Tuesday to ask commissioners to reject an agreement with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to transfer the Lodge at Geneva-on-the-Lake to the state.
Former State Rep. John Patterson introduced the group, which has met 12 times since mid-July, he said. The group is made up of people from across the political spectrum who are concerned about the economic impact of ODNR taking over the lodge.
A pair of provisions in the state’s biennial budget, passed earlier this year, call for the county and ODNR to reach an agreement for the transfer of the lodge to the state. The budget also appropriated $13.9 million to purchase the lodge from Ashtabula County and pay the facility’s operating costs until June 30, 2023.
Ashtabula County Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Stephanie Siegel said the lodge is responsible for a quarter of the county’s bed tax collections.
“I am not aware of a government lodging property in the state that drives occupancy and room rates to all-time highs for the entire region, while accounting for such a large piece of the marketshare year after year,” Siegel said.
Early in the lodge’s life, Delaware North, the company that operates the lodge, branded it as Ohio’s Wine Country Resort, which has since been trademarked by the CVB, Siegel said.
Convention and Facilities Authority Chair Holly Mayernick said the CFA commissioned an economic impact study to find out the total impact of the lodge on the county’s economy. According to the study, the lodge generated an economic impact of $23 million in 2019.
Mayernick said the lodge creates 280 jobs, $2.4 million in tax revenue and $7.2 million in spending throughout the county.
Geneva-on-the-Lake Mayor Dwayne Bennett thanked commissioners for taking the time to listen to the group. Bennett said the group believes any reduction in the economic impact of the lodge would have a ripple effect that would impact police, fire and public services in Geneva-on-the-Lake.
Almost 1.3 million people visited Geneva-on-the-Lake in the last year, and 177,000 of those visitors were directly related to the lodge, Bennett said.
Property prices in the village have soared in recent years, Bennett said.
“We had a property in 2011 that sold for $400,000, we just sold that last month for $725,000,” he said. “A recent residential property sold in 2020, which was just a year ago, for $52,500. We sold that last week for $249,000. It’s kind of unheard of.”
Don Woodward spoke on behalf of the Geneva-on-the-Lake Visitors Bureau. Woodward said a two-percent bed tax was created to help fund the construction of the lodge. If the lodge is moved to state control, the two-percent bed tax will go away and cannot be levied again, Woodward said.
Ohio Wine Producers Association Executive Director Donniella Winchell said the Delaware North has built significantly on the “Ohio’s Wine Country Resort” branding.
“They purchase tens of thousands of dollars of wine from our area wineries,” Winchell said. “In the case of several wineries, Delaware North is the single largest purchaser of wines from those wineries.”
While local entities have worked hard to build a national reputation for area vineyards and wineries, the success that has been achieved would have likely been impossible without Delaware North’s efforts, Winchell said.
“To have the lodge become just one of a score of state park lodges and the amenities generally offered by them would undermine its unique position as a luxury brand featuring Ohio wines, and would certainly diminish much of the progress we’ve made to this point,” Winchell said.
Ashtabula City Manager Jim Timonere said the lodge plays a huge role in making Bridge Street a regional destination for tourism.
“I would remind the commissioners that the original ask in the state budget was to help with the debt, and only to help with the debt,” Timonere said. He said everyone would be in support of somehow reducing the debt from building the lodge, but local control of the lodge is still important.
Patterson said the group’s request was to reject the takeover of the lodge, if possible. If not, the commissioners should ask legislators to delay the Dec. 31 deadline, so a better solution can be found, he said.
Commissioners asked for something in writing about proposals to provide more funds for the payments on the lodge debt.
On Wednesday, Commissioner Casey Kozlowski said commissioners have had multiple conversations with ODNR. A deal between the two entities has not yet been reached, Kozlowski said.
“There will be conversations that could lead to an outcome that benefits all in Ashtabula County,” Kozlowski said.
Kozlowski said commissioners are cognizant of the concerns raised at the meeting.
“Should a deal be struck, we want to certainly make sure that some of the concerns are being heard throughout the process,” Kozlowski said.