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Lake, Ashtabula counties form new branding campaign

Simon Husted | The News-Herald

Ohio’s largest and smallest two counties are launching a joint effort with hopes of building a stronger reputation among national tourist destinations. The plan would take a regional approach already used successfully by Northeast Ohio’s wine industry. Public officials from Ashtabula and Lake counties began communicating earlier this year with local winemakers and distillers to start their own public-private branding campaign. Officials are still soliciting private funds, and it’s not yet determined what precisely will be spent in this $180,000 or more campaign.

Forming a year out from the National Republican Convention in Cleveland, officials involved in the campaign said they hope it has a presence there and an impact on the convention’s expected 50,000 visitors. Nevertheless, the joint campaign is being designed for the long-term, not to merely attract convention goers, officials stressed.“Nobody wanted to do this for a one-shot deal,” said Lake County Commissioner Judy Moran, who is heading the project among her commission board. “It makes no sense to pour this kind of money for the four days those people are going to be here. I personally would like to see this years and years from now and growing. It will be a living plan, a living document.” The Lake County Ohio Port and Economic Development Authority is serving as the financial agent in the campaign, which doesn’t have a formal name. Mark Rantala, the authority’s executive director, said July 23 that he expects all of the entities to sign a cooperative agreement and form a committee “in the next two weeks.”

According to officials, this is how much each entity is spending so far:

• Ashtabula County is allocating $30,000 out of its Economic Impact Fund.

• Ashtabula County Port Authority is allocating $25,000.

• Ashtabula County Visitors Bureau is allocating $10,000.

• Lake Metroparks is allocating $15,000.

• Local wine producers are allocating $8,000, with $2,000 expected to come soon.

• Lake County commissioners are allocating $90,000 using bed tax revenue.

Lake County Commissioner Kevin Malecek said a campaign like this could include designing a joint logo, producing promotional videos, brochures and maps. He stressed nothing has been decided yet and “no one wants to predispose what is going to come out of this.” A portion of this money will go to hire Peggy Noe Stevens and Associates, the Louisville, Kentucky-based consulting firm responsible for the creation of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail in 1999. The trail connects visitors to distilleries between Louisville and Lexington, and since its creation, production at Kentucky’s network of craft distilleries has increased nearly threefold, according to the trail’s website. Eddy Eckart, a Harpersfield Township resident and a strong believer of the wine and spirits scene in the Grand River Valley, had recently seen this trail’s economic impact first-hand. He initiated the idea of the two counties branding together and partnering with Peggy Noe Stevens in the strategizing. “This is going to take the hard work that a lot of people have already done and bring it under one identity,” said Eckart, who also works as a consultant with his dad, former Congressman Dennis Eckart.

Despite the Kentucky Bourbon Trail connection, Eckart and others stressed the campaign is not about forming a new wine and distillery trail, but connecting the counties’ wineries and distilleries, which number about two dozen, to the region’s other assets: the lakefront harbors, the bed and breakfast venues, the covered bridges, the county parks, the golf courses and the scenic rural views. It is possible the branding could include other cultural assets not near the county border like Ashtabula’s revitalizing Bridge Street historic district, the James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor and the Holden Arboretum in Kirtland.

One icon officials have pointed to is Upstate New York’s Finger Lakes region, a wine country situated between the cities of Rochester and Syracuse. Although the Finger Lakes are known as the state’s biggest wine-producing region, the Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance, which is tied to the 14 counties and 11 lakes, also boosts other assets like museums, recreation, history, small towns, and lodging. Eckart, Moran, Malecek and Ashtabula County Commissioner President Peggy Carlo all told The News-Herald they believe the Ashtabula-Lake county region can obtain the same reputation of the Finger Lakes down the road. Carlo said the formation of this campaign is “a first step” to more cross-county tourism initiatives the two hope to take on.