Prototype Rest Stops Coming to Northeast Ohio

HOWLAND, Ohio – Tourism is big business in Ohio – $40 billion per year – but the majority of it comes from automobile travelers.

With so many folks on road trips, highway rest stops are key contact points, said Linda Mihalik, director of the state Development Services agency. With that in mind, the administration of Gov. Mike DeWine is assessing and updating rest stops and has developed a prototype for new construction.

The first of these new rest stops will be built in Portage and Ashtabula counties, said Matthew MacLaren, director of TourismOhio.

MacLaren, along with Sheryl Maxfield, director of the Ohio Department of Commerce, and Mihalik, lead a tourism discussion with Mahoning Valley officials and stakeholders at the Grand Resort Wednesday.

The resort was a fitting location for the meeting, because it is down the road from the soon-to-open art museum of Foundation Medici. Formerly known as the Butler Institute of American Art Trumbull Branch, the foundation’s museum recently reached a deal to take possession of a $100 million art collection from the Boy Scouts of America that includes 66 works by the late Norman Rockwell.

The paintings will go on display in the first part of 2020.

Beth Carmichael, director of tourism for Trumbull County, is eager to create tourism opportunities around the paintings, but indicated it is too early to say what they will be.

MacLaren was unaware of the Rockwells coming to Trumbull County before Wednesday’s discussion, but recognized their potential in tourism.

As for the two new rest stops — a design concept is pictured above, they will be built on Interstate 80 – eastbound and westbound – in Portage County and on Interstate 90 westbound in Ashtabula County.

“[Gov. DeWine has] made a strong commitment to update our rest areas,” Mihalik said. “We know that most travel in the state is done by car and most stay for a long weekend, and not an entire week.”

She cited studies that show a single person spends an average of $116 on a day trip in the state, and $369 daily on overnight trips.

“Many are visiting family or friends, whether they are coming from within the state or outside. We want them to be safe and be able to stop for a clean restroom, and be able to stretch their legs, walk their pets and give their children a place to run around outside.”

The state prototype for the new rest stops includes a pet walk, outdoor areas with native Ohio trees and plants, and “more of an inside experience with Ohio Travel TV (on monitors) and opportunities for photo spots, clean restrooms, fresh water and refreshments,” Mihalik said.

She did not reveal when work would begin but said they would be complete in the coming years.

Not all discussion was upbeat on the matter of rest stops.

Linda Macala, executive director of the Mahoning County Convention and Visitors Bureau, raised the issue of a former rest stop that once greeted travelers as they crossed the state line on Interstate 80 westbound.

“When it first closed (about a decade ago), it was supposed to be temporary,” said Macala. “We heard it was going to reopen and it never has. Can that be put on someone’s radar?”

Mihalik responded that the process of evaluating the rest stops is in its early phases and she will take Macala’s concerns back to Columbus.

Macala also raised the issue of the proliferation of private homes being rented as lodging on websites such as Airbnb.com and Vrbo.com.

“They are not regulated at all,” said Macala. “We are funded by lodging tax, and as more and more travelers [rent private homes instead of hotels], it affects us.” Macala would like to see these forms of lodging regulated the same as hotels.

Commerce director Maxfield said the issue “hasn’t gotten a lot of traction in the General Assembly yet. I agree it should be looked at and I’m surprised the Assembly hasn’t yet. But one of the issues might be enforcement, because unless someone ‘outs’ you, there is no way to know who [is renting out their home as lodging].”

Another issue that hit close to home was asked by Joe Bell, spokesperson for the Cafaro Co., which owns the Eastwood Mall Complex in Niles, and the stadium there where the Mahoning Valley Scrappers minor league baseball team plays its home games.

The Scrappers are on a list of teams targeted for possible elimination by Major League Baseball, and Bell wanted to know if the state’s tourism and other departments are working together to mount a “full-court press” to fight any effort to close them.

“We will take it back to the governor,” Mihalik said. “[Minor league baseball] is vital as an economic driver and it’s good for Ohio as a whole.”

Mihalik pointed out that Gov. DeWine and his family own a Class A baseball team in North Carolina and he has issued a statement strongly opposing the possible disbanding of minor league teams. DeWine’s team is not on the list of teams targeted for closing.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.