Warren County’s robust tourism economy just hit a new industry high as the major driver of that economy celebrates its Golden Anniversary.
According to a new study released by Tourism Economics and TourismOhio, tourism in “Ohio’s Largest Playground” accounted for a record $1.45 billion in economic impact in 2021.
That figure is a 34.3% increase over 2020 and an 8.5% increase from pre-pandemic 2019, Warren County’s previous record. It represents a significant resurgence for Warren County tourism following COVID-19′s debilitating, worldwide impact on the travel and tourism industry.
Warren County is home to a number of attractions including Kings Island, Great Wolf Lodge, the Western & Southern Open tennis tournament, Miami Valley Gaming, Caesar Creek State Park and the Warren County Sports Park at Union Village.
“The early days of the pandemic were among the most challenging times the tourism industry has ever faced, not just here in Warren County but across the state, the nation and around the world. But as soon as it was safe to travel again we saw a surge of visitors into Warren County,” said Phillip S. Smith, president & CEO of the Warren County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “While we still have plenty of work to do to get our region’s tourism economy entirely back to full strength, we’re encouraged by this study and are excited about the promising days ahead.”
Tourism Economics’ study also showed tourism supported 12,310 jobs – or approximately 9% of Warren County’s private workforce – in 2021. Known as “Ohio’s Largest Playground,” Warren County is the second most tourism-dependent county in southwest Ohio.
The more than 12,000 tourism-related jobs accounted for $346 million in wages and generated $199 million in tax revenue for federal, state and local governments.
In all, nearly 12 million people visited Warren County’s various events and attractions in 2021, generating $842 million in direct visitor spending. Top areas of that visitor spending included recreation, retail, transportation, lodging, and food & beverage.
Warren County Commissioner David Young said, “historically, 100% of Warren County’s tourism industry started with Kings Island. That gave a competitive advantage to Warren County and allowed us to build an entire industry here that were just farms 50 years ago.”
The cost to build Kings Island was $31 million in 1969 dollars, which is the equivalent of more than $250.3 million 2022 dollars. The venue features a 364-acre amusement park and a 33-acre water park. In addition, other infrastructure improvements such as completing the Western Row Road interchange, a $50 million investment on Interstate 71 south, is also helping to spur economic development in Mason.
Young said having Kings Island and the major sporting events such as the Western & Southern Open and before that pro golf tournaments, was part of the impetus in developing the Warren County Sports Park at Union Village to develop a youth sports tournament business by leveraging the access to other tourism attractions.
“It was the impetus to build the Sports Park as we were looking for ways for people who traveled to soccer and baseball tournaments and get them to extend their stay here,” Young said. “We wanted them to look at ancillary activities such as going to Kings Island or antiquing in Lebanon.”
Young said the Sports Park has far exceeded expectations. He said initial projections were for 700,000 participants a year for the first five years. Young said it’s more than 1 million now. “It’s done remarkably well,” he said.
While the WCCVB does not release annual attendance figures for specific attractions, the Sports Park, which opened in 2020 and is owned and operated by the WCCVB, hosted 52 events in 2021, drawing nearly 700,000 people and generating 70,000 room nights in local hotels.
Young said those dollars have helped to diversify economic development, helped keep county taxes low and helped to have a one-year property tax holiday for property owners.
In addition to sports tournaments and world-class roller coasters, people in the region come to Warren County to shop for everything from vehicles to clothes, which also adds sales tax dollars to the county coffers. The retail corridor in the Mason-Montgomery/Fields Ertel Road area attracts many visitors and residents as well as generating sales tax revenue for the county, Young said.
Warren County is also looking to expand its multi-purpose sports and entertainment offerings in a project to develop a venue at the Towne Mall in Middletown.
Martin Russell, Warren County Port Authority executive director and deputy county administrator said the proposed venue will feature an ice rink/sports facility and a hotel as an anchor that would attract more restaurants, retail, offices, multi-family housing, trade shows, and concerts. The county, Warren County Port Authority and the city of Middletown have led the effort to prepare the project for private investors to join the partnership.
“Our goal is to have the financing in place as quickly as possible, no later than 2023,” Russell said.