LISBON, Ohio – In her work as a volunteer at Beaver Creek Wildlife Education Center, Eileen Dray-Bardon often gets questions from visitors about what else there is to do nearby. Visitors to the center near Beaver Creek State Park sometimes come from outside the tri-county area and want to explore.
“We don’t do a good job in our county of letting people know all the treasures we have here. Beyond the outdoors things I’m involved in, there’s the museums and history places,” Dray-Bardon says.
To better answer those questions – and to help visitors plan before they arrive, she and Tad Herold recently incorporated the Columbiana County Visitors Bureau.
In addition to her volunteer work, Dray-Bardon is a member of the Columbiana County Park District. She has gained an intimate knowledge of what the area has to offer, from outdoor activities to its history to shopping. But without a unified tourism bureau, it’s hard to spread that message far and wide.
To begin, Dray-Bardon and Herold enlisted a group of students from Kent State University who performed a feasibility study of a countywide tourism bureau. Without the ability to collect a bed tax, which typically funds tourism agencies, the Columbiana County Visitors Bureau is limited in what it can do. The student group’s top recommendation was to begin a website; one is currently in the works.
While there are community tourism agencies throughout the county, such as the Columbiana Area Tourism Bureau and the St. Clair Township Travel & Tourism Bureau, there has never been a countywide program.
“If I want to do something an hour’s drive away, I’d probably go somewhere that has two or three communities close together that I can visit. If there’s only one spot, it had better be a pretty good spot. We want to coalesce all these opportunities together to entice people to visit them,” says Herold, who serves as the county’s director of economic development.
As part of its incorporation, the bureau was required to create a board of directors. It currently has five members and is looking to add four more. The members will represent a cross-section of those with a vested interest in developing tourism across the county.
“Part of the way we’re assembling this group is appointing people from chambers of commerce, other tourism boards, historical societies, museums and groups like that. Those are the groups that have a vested interest in getting this message out,” Herold says. “We don’t want to compete with what they’re doing. If the Columbiana Area Chamber of Commerce is doing something, we want to work alongside it and promote it. But we don’t want to compete with them to get the message out.”
Having a place where potential visitors could gain access to all the information they need when coming to Columbiana County could be a boon for businesses, Herold and Dray-Bardon agree. The exact impact won’t be known until the visitors’ bureau is operating at full steam.
“We’ve heard from businesses that, because they’re not well known regionally or locally, they don’t get the traffic they should. If we can all pool our resources together, we can reach a wider audience,” Herold says. “We can tap into the advantages we have in Columbiana County with things like parks and greenspace.”
One such attraction that takes advantage of nature is the Little Beaver Creek Greenway Trail, a 12½-mile paved path from Leetonia to Lisbon.
“Lisbon and Leetonia are seeking ways to leverage their location along that trail because it gets so much use from people outside the county,” Herold says. “Our suspicion is that it will be a major draw once it’s better known.”
Beyond activities for nature lovers, Columbiana County also has a deep well of history and cultural attractions, Dray-Bardon adds, with sites like the Charles Burchfield Homestead Museum in Salem.
The museum, housed in the artist’s childhood home, showcases some of his watercolor paintings next to the view that inspired them. Over the course of his career, Burchfield’s works evolved from streetscapes of Salem to surrealist landscapes.
“Salem has a great history and they do a great job of promoting it. But if we can connect them with these other places they could see even more people coming,” Dray-Bardon says.
There are places like Lisbon, one of the oldest towns in Ohio; East Liverpool, once a center of ceramics production in the United States; and Hanoverton, once a thriving stop along the Sandy and Beaver Canal and the Underground Railroad.
“There are so many bites of history that if we can pool them all together, people can come and see the big picture and how Columbiana County was this unique part of Ohio,” she says.
But the first step in creating that unified effort has to be taken, beginning with a website.
“Right now, we’re not just low-budget, but no-budget. The website is where we thought we could best start,” Dray-Bardon says.
They’ve had talks with the Columbiana County Commissioners about getting some funding, possibly through the county’s allotment from the Cares Act. At this point, those are still just discussions. Even so, among local businesses, other bureaus and governments, there’s interest, Dray-Bardon reports.
“What’s struck me is how welcomed this venture has been. The people who do this work realize that it’s hard to reach a big audience on their own,” she says.
“Doing it from a more centralized point as we plan to do with this visitors bureau could bring more attention to the treasures in our county.”
Pictured above: In western Columbiana County, Hanoverton embraces ties to presidential history.