Ohio’s Winding Road Network has been negotiating some tricky curves and has made a couple of sharp hairpin turns over the past six months as COVID-19 has changed our world. As well we’ve pulled over to a few shady roadside spots (Zoom Corners) and have been reflecting on what changes make sense and what most sustains our mission as we adapt as a network of experience producers, organizations, and stakeholders across the Hocking and Muskingum River Valleys of southeastern Ohio.
One of the most visible changes you might have noticed has been the suspension of the publication of our print catalog OWR Experiences just moments before it went to press in March for the Spring-Summer edition, as scheduled experiences were dropping off the calendar at a rapid rate. If you are an active participant in the Network, you’ve also noticed that face-to-face meet ups with various sector groups were postponed. Our immediate pivots were to upgrade our presence on social media with a series called OWR Snapshots, which featured the many outdoor locations that could safely visit in our region. And, to organize and reschedule meet-ups on Zoom. Both of these ventures have been well received by the public (social media) and by producers (meet ups). The Snapshot series matched well with the influx of new visitors to our area seeking safe experience along trails and highways and on our lakes and rivers. As most of you know, COVID-19 has visited our emerging outdoor recreation industry with record breaking business, while restaurants, event venues and festivals have taken a brutal hit. At the same time, behind the emerging OWR brand’s curtain, we’ve been having a series of lively discussions with seed grant recipients, the Pennsylvania Winding Road folks, producers, and sector meet ups in the heritage and authentic amenities lodging sectors. Participation has exceeded our expectations, and we all are enjoying less travel and time being invested in regional meetings.
COVID-19 rocked our world just a month after we awarded twenty-seven Seed Grants to producers across the region. The majority of those grants went to experience producers who offered guided tours and other programming to regional residents and visitors. While others went to makers, shopkeepers and vendors. Given that many of the funded events had to be postponed, and many sales venues closed, we are working each day to help recipients re-purpose their grants to investments in future success or alternative strategies. We have paid out about 60% of grant funds for actual expenditures year to date and expect to have all funds distributed by the end of the calendar year.
The biggest hit to our work has been moving the pillar strategy of guided tours/interpretation forward with our supported community of guides. With most group events on hold, the business model/strategy to move their products forward, challenging enough without COVID, is even more challenged now. We are emerging with a commitment to investing in interpretive on-line programming in the short term, by repurposing grant funds toward video production and site visitation by camera rather than vans full of visitors. Monetizing on-line programming is a challenge we are also taking on as we look for sustainable business models that build the guide industry in southeastern Ohio.
We’ve shifted a portion of our entrepreneurial support to producers of physical products such as artists, food producers and writers/videographers who produce books and DVD’s and purveyors of authentic local products such as restaurants, authentic lodging hosts, and shops. We are first doing this by organizing an on-line OWR Marketplace Pop Up Market on our www.ohioswindingroad.org web site in late fall. We are also working to re-open a physical OWR Marketplace featuring these same items at our headquarters in Shawnee this fall/winter. Stay tuned and consider supporting local producers when you choose holiday gifts this coming season.
The power of the network has been remarkable during these challenging times as our backbone organizations have been working together to support the network. ACEnet has been an avid listener and supporter of entrepreneurs affected by the COVID crisis, while also taking the lead on the launch of our new logo and “Sharing Our Appalachia” brand. Rural Action has taken the lead in raising funds and getting CARES ACT dollars to communities struggling to adapt to the pandemic while also supporting trail and trail town development such as the Bailey’s Trail in Chauncey and the Buckeye Trail in Shawnee. Hocking College has joined in with the OWR Marketplace initiative by providing support funds for the launch of the pop-up market via their Hocking Makerspace program. Ohio University’s Center for Campus and Community Engagement will be sponsoring interns to work with the Marketplace Pop-Up project and more importantly, how it relates to the overall strategy to create an on-line digital platform for media, sales, and marketing for OWR. And, Ohio Hill Country Heritage Area provides the glue to keep the network moving forward via OWR contractors who manage the various pillars of the initiative’s interactive planning process, the overall operations of the Network and a pilot project in Shawnee working to create a Trail Town prototype there.
What has stayed constant during these challenging times, is a growing confidence that our region and its emerging OWR brand is and will increasingly be a place where authentic one-of-a-kind experiences are to be found and interpreted. We are growing the number and quality of experiences and physical products that are connected to our story and landscape, and in doing so we offer a place to live and visit that is increasingly thoughtful, positive, and sustainable. Instead of being one organization, we are a vibrant network working together collaboratively to achieve our mission to be both “a guide to creative experiences in southeast Ohio” and “a new model that begins with connecting a network of neighbors which helps each other build and steward creative experiences based in cultural history, outdoor adventure & environmental learning, the arts, local foods, education and authentic amenities.” Ohio’s Winding Road, has been, and indeed continues to “Share Our Appalachia” amongst ourselves and those who are attracted to our unique sense of place and purpose!