|By Kristin McAllister, Middletown Journal, Ohio|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
May 12, 2005 - MASON -- The planned opening in 2006 of a year-round resort with a conference center and indoor water park next to Paramount's Kings Island will solidify tourism's position as the No. 1 industry in Warren County, industry officials said.
Warren County is home to an abundance of seasonal attractions -- antiques shops, stops by the men's and women's pro tennis tours, the Little Miami River, pro golf tournaments, Caesar Creek State Park, The Beach water park and Paramount's Kings Island amusement park.
Plans completed last week to build the Great Wolf Resort are expected to squash any doubt that tourism has surpassed agriculture as Warren County's main business.
"We've got state data already showing that it has, but if it's not already in the lead, Great Wolf will tip the scale," said Margaret Drexel, a spokeswoman with the Warren County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"It just puts a bigger spin and boost on what we call the 'off season.' " Increased residential and commercial development in the past decade -- Warren County is the state's second-fastest growing county and the ranks 50th in the nation in population growth -- moved tourism a nose ahead.
"Besides the increase in the number of attractions here, the county's overall growth has really been a major factor," said Shirley Bonekemper, tourism bureau executive director. "A lot of farms are being sold. That changes the balance." The Great Wolf Resort will have 404 suites, a 75,000-square foot indoor water park and 40,000-square foot conference center.
It will employ 500 workers year-round, provide shuttle service to and from Kings Island and be constructed on the north side of the amusement park, where the park's campground now exists off Ohio 741 in Mason.
The campground will be relocated to nearby property.
"It will have a big economic impact on our restaurants and jobs and take that down time of the winter and bring it up," Bonekemper said.
The year-round appeal of the resort may catch on with other potential investors, she said.
As large as the Great Wolf development will be, the resort ranks well below the county's largest employers.
With 2,243 workers, the biggest is the privately held Anthem and Anthem Prescription Co., followed by privately held Cintas, with 1,800 workers, according to county economic development department data.
However, Great Wolf will join a county tourism industry that in 2003 accounted for 16,000 jobs, most of them part-time, Drexel said.
During the peak season, Kings Island employs 5,000, according to county data.
Great Wolf executives declined to reveal their estimated total payroll or average wages, making it difficult to calculate the economic impact of the resort. However, an idea of the impact the Wisconsin-based company's resort might have can be found in Sandusky.
The Great Wolf resort there -- valued at $79 million less than the $100 million facility planned for Mason -- in 2004 brought in $463,536 in real estate and personal property taxes, according to the Erie County auditor's office.
An estimate of income taxes paid by employees was not available.
Drexel said officials track how well the tourism industry does in Warren County through indirect and direct sales tax related to tourism spending.
For example, in 2003, the county had 6.6 million visitors who brought to the county an overall economic impact of more than $596 million, she said. About 6.7 million visitors are expected in 2005.
Promotion of attractions in Warren County by the 25-year-old tourism bureau to residents and businesses in nearby states has been part of the secret to Warren County's tourism growth.
A bed tax paid by hotel guests, which raised $306,000 when the tax was imposed in 1994, will reach $1.1 million this year, and pays for Warren County's advertising.
"That's not counting what comes in from our sports and marketing program," Bonekemper said.
King's Island remains the major draw -- but location is Warren County's key asset.
"It gives us a real advantage during a crisis or economy issue," Bonekemper said.
"When people might be afraid to fly, they can come here."
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Copyright (c) 2005, Middletown Journal, Ohio
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