By Mike Barhorst
Some years ago I was attending a seminar on tourism, and the speaker presented a trove of evidence that indicated that if a community wanted to attract overnight hotel guests, there needed to be at least a dozen different attractions within the community. As he provided the rationale and the data that backed up his assertion, I began to make a list of Sidney’s attractions and despite my best efforts, could only come up with half that number. As a result, I began to think about how we might add to that number and thus, help fill the city’s current 439 hotel rooms on weekends.
I knew from my conversations with Tom Shoemaker (the long-time owner of the Sidney Holiday Inn) and more recently with NB Patel (the owner of the Holiday inn Express and the Marriott Towne Place Suites) that their rooms were often filled to capacity with business travelers during the week, but that most weekends they had plenty of excess capacity. Since the city relies on the Hotel Tax to help fund local events, keeping the hotels at capacity every day of the week has benefits for all of us.
There are sites that we all know that attract visitors. The Shelby County Courthouse, the Monumental Building, The Spot, the Peoples Federal Savings & Loan Association Building, and the Shelby County Historical Society are without question, sites that draw visitors.
And, within 30 minutes-drive time, visitors can be at the Johnston Farm & Indian Agency, Airstream for the fascinating factory Tour, the Bicycle Museum of America, the WACO Air Museum, and the Bruckner Nature Center, all sites I have visited and certainly consider worth visiting. When I talk with Sidney residents, I’m always surprised to find those who have never visited these sites, and in some cases didn’t even know they exist.
Tawawa Park is often referred to as the “Crown Jewell” of Sidney’s expansive park system. The park’s 230+ acres includes several natural and man-made features. Natural features include the wooded hills and bluffs, a creek, two lakes, and of course, Ohio’s largest-known boulder, transported here from Canada during the last Ice Age.
Man-made features include the mill race, roadways, paved recreational trails, picnic shelters, the Ross covered bridge, play equipment, and the Zenas King bridge. The Zenas King bridge will soon be joined by another similar bridge, this one placed across Tawawa Lake with the idea that a collection of historic bridges will in and of itself help draw visitors and in addition, prove useful by providing passage across water features along the park’s recreational trails.
Despite both the park’s natural and man-made features, I’ve found more than a few residents who have lived in Sidney for more than a decade who didn’t know of the park’s existence. Happily, I recently learned that the park is far better known than anecdotal evidence might suggest.
Some years ago when my kids were young, we’d go to the park to picnic and play. One day as we were sitting on our blanket and eating lunch, I happened to notice that it seemed there were more visitors than usual, and I began to wonder how many people came to the park. As time passed, I began to pester various city individuals as to how we might better understand how many visitors used the park, and from where they came.
Years passed, and eventually geofencing (a technology that allows cell phone data to be collected within a defined space to determine how many people are in a particular location during a period of time, and where the cell phone was listed) was developed. This past year, the City collected the data for the park, and I think nearly everyone at City Hall was surprised.
More than 200,000 visitors came to Tawawa Park in 2023, making it one of the most visited attractions in the Miami Valley. In fact it would rank in sixth place, with just a few less visitors than the National Museum of the United States Air Force, and a few more than Carillon Historical Park. In analyzing the data, visitors came from 35 states (including Ohio). Visitors represented 255 of Ohio’s municipalities. Visitors stayed an average of 99 minutes.
It should come as no surprise that the largest percentage of visitors came from Sidney (62.301%). However, nearby municipalities were well-represented (including Piqua (5.1%), Anna (3.48%), Troy (1.562%), Wapakoneta (1.368%) Fort Loramie (.854%), Houston (.851%), and Botkins (.844%.)
Unfortunately, the data did not include visitors from foreign countries. However, I know that there were visitors from at least four countries, as I accompanied them to the park personally.
Ideally the park as it currently exists can continue to withstand the high volume of traffic it is experiencing. It easily can if park visitors stay on paved trails and park in paved parking lots, pick up anything brought into the park and dispose of it property, and leave both the flora and fauna for others to enjoy.
What’s ahead for the park? Later this year, the aforementioned bridge will be constructed across Tawawa Lake, replacing the footbridge that has seen far better days. We are working with the Ohio Department of Transportation to relocate a large bridge structure that would span Tawawa Creek and unite Meyer Meadow with Anderson’s Bottom Land, and allow for trail connectivity. On the drawing board is the acquisition of a bit more land that would enable the creation of a wetland that would attract different kinds of wildlife and add to the year-round enjoyment of the park.
On behalf of City Council, I certainly thank the Parks & Recreation Board for their stewardship of Tawawa and the city’s other 18 parks. We are also grateful for the leadership of Parks Director Duane Gaier and his fine staff, as well as the leadership of former Parks Director Bob New and his predecessors, whose efforts made possible all that we enjoy today.
The writer is a member of Sidney City Council.