A Time of Restoration

0530 Historic Downtown Millersburg
Dave Mast

Like most towns throughout the U.S., businesses in Historic Downtown Millersburg had to struggle with the economic downturn, but appears to have returned to a more normal appearance with plenty of traffic rolling through the antique-based town.

While Amish Country is usually a bustling center of activity each spring, the spring of 2020 was eerily quiet and uneventful as COVID-19 made itself at home and forced local families to stay at home and those people who normally would frequent Amish Country to experience the tranquility and idyllic rolling settings to stay away.

As the restrictions were lifted one by one by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and things started to get back to a small slice of normalcy in May, the economic impact of the stay-at-home mandates made quite an impact on Holmes County, where businesses both small and large, tourism-related and manufacturing, felt the sting of revenue lost.

As executive director of the Holmes County Chamber of Commerce & Tourism Bureau, Tiffany Gerber has had her hand on the pulse of the county and even surrounding counties, where tourism is tied together and a critical part of the area’s economy.

“Everyone is in reaction mode right now,” Gerber said, “We are now in the early stages of recovery mode, and we are taking on a fairly aggressive marketing plan for the tourism side to capture what we can from the situation. We have created a welcome-back package for visitors and are looking forward to tackling this thing quickly and efficiently.”

One thing Amish Country businesses are known for is the entrepreneurial spirit that has made the area such a successful place for a business to put down roots and grow.

The area’s manufacturing businesses have continued to grind along, and while it wasn’t easy and many changes had to be made, it appears as though the worst is past and manufacturing in Amish Country has survived.

Gerber said during the pandemic she has seen and heard of businesses finding ways to cope and overcome during a time when struggles existed nationwide.

“A lot of our manufacturers really switched gears,” Gerber said. “So many were able to either adapt to the new guidelines on how to operate or actually switch their whole manufacturing process to produce PPEs (personal protective equipment). Because of that, it felt like our manufacturing businesses came through this pretty well.”

While that has been the case from a manufacturing standpoint, Gerber said the tourism side of the ledger has been more brutally impacted.

The chamber put out a survey to its local tourism-related businesses to try to get a read on how they were doing, what their thoughts and fears were, and how they have coped with seeing such a monumental drop in the tourism industry during the pandemic.

One of the key components of the survey was to get a gage on what the estimated loss of income was going to look like.

While a dozen businesses responded, those 12 companies reported the expected collective loss would eclipse the $1 million mark in lost revenue, and that was in less than three months.

“That is a significant impact, and that is just with a dozen businesses responding,” Gerber said.

Gerber said while there are no magic numbers or exact charts to estimate the cost of losses, they can look at quarterly reports from previous years to get an estimate of what should have taken place.

She said the 2020 first quarter report sent out some fascinating and truly exciting numbers. However, the second quarter, which took place during the pandemic, was an unmitigated disaster.

“For the first quarter of 2020, we were up 20% in receipts, which is a wonderful quarter for Holmes County,” Gerber said. “We were set for a gangbuster year. Growth that much in what is typically a slow quarter for us pointed toward us really skyrocketing this year.”

Then the sad reality of COVID-19 set in and, like Jack and Jill, the economy took a hard tumble, devastating the projections from the tourism industry.

“I’m projecting us to be down 80-85% in the second quarter,” Gerber said. “Our hotels are giving us feedback that the numbers aren’t too far off the mark.”

With that grim news in place, Gerber said optimism, something Amish Country exudes, has people ramping up for a comeback story. She said the chamber has been inundated with calls from people who are longing to get to Holmes County for a respite, seeking a bit of relaxation from the stress of dealing with isolation and lockdown.

“People in and out of state are calling to get more information on what is open and when they can come. For the most part, everything is now back to open, with Berlin and Millersburg, the two main hubs of Holmes County’s tourism, seeing a huge rebound already.

“We’re receiving calls from the neighboring counties and calls from Arizona from people who say they are coming,” Gerber said. “As destinations go, we are going to bounce back quickly. I really think we will be one of the first places to bounce back because people see our area as being safe and clean.”

Gerber said after previous troubling times like the recession, 9/11 and other downturns in the economy, Amish Country has quickly rebounded as one of the finest drive-to destinations.

“People like the traditions here. They feel safer, and they feel comfortable here,” Gerber said.

Oddly the one question that would seem pertinent is not one being asked, that being how many cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the area.

Gerber said the county is taking great precautions and telling visitors to remain vigilant in their travels and visitations. She said the chamber continues to encourage people to wear masks whenever possible, practice safe distancing and be smart about their visit.

The chamber is even offering free curbside information packet pickup to visitors, and the chamber office has been altered to become more accessible from a safety standpoint.

Berlin and Millersburg are both keeping public restrooms open and are cleaning them on a frequent schedule. Berlin added extra picnic tables for people to dine outside.

“We just have to pick ourselves up and move on, which is something this area is really good at,” Gerber said.

Gerber went on to say area furniture makers have been working and are now very well-stocked, meaning visitors could find some great deals and plenty of selection.

Anyone seeking further information and updates can visit the chamber’s Facebook page at www.ohioamishcountryunited.com or www.ohioamishcountry.com or call the chamber at 330-674-3975.