The Oil Region Alliance (ORA) held a couple of kick-off meetings Wednesday to discuss the research of and hear public input for the 2020 Oil Region National Heritage Area (ORNHA) strategic plan.

ORA Heritage Program Manager for the ORA Jennifer Burden introduced the project and two of its consultants, Project Manager Philip Walker and Economic Consultant Randall Gross, to the public during the meetings held via Zoom.

The ORNHA covers 708 square miles, including all of Venango County and a small area of Crawford County that includes Titusville, Hydetown and Oil Creek Township. Prior to 2004 when the area achieved official national heritage area status, it was known as the “Oil Region Heritage Park,” Walker said.

Burden walked through the four main categories – organizational, economic development, heritage development and tourism – of the most recent strategic plan conducted in 2010 and the work the ORA has completed since then.

For the organizational category, Burden said the ORA staff has grown to 10 full-time staff members and an additional 1.5 staff members who run the Oil City Main Street Program. The ORA also hires contractors and interns when needed, she added.

“We look vastly different today than we did in 2010,” Burden said.

Although fewer staff are dedicated to economic development than before, Burden said the main focus economically has been expanding and supporting businesses and industries that are already established in the area. Regarding tourism, she said the ORA is currently working to distribute its 2020-21 visitor guide and has worked on marketing aspects of the ORNHA to tourists.

The bulk of work the ORA has done falls under heritage development and includes improvements to outdoor recreation, development of educational materials, preservation of cultural resources and the creation of natural gas history materials and visitors centers throughout the area.

For this year’s strategic plan, Walker presented the preliminary findings of a recent observational tour he and Gross took of the area to see where it stands now.

The ORA itself runs like “a well-oiled machine,” Walker said, and the physical size of the ORNHA is manageable for both for the organization and the tourists that come to visit.

However, the ORA depends greatly on federal and state grants for its funding – about 62% of its budget comes from grants – which it should distribute more evenly with its other forms of revenue, Walker said, adding that the ORA might need to “refine” the role and integration of heritage within the organization.

Walker noted that the area has “tremendous natural resources and outdoor recreational activities,” although connections to the greenways and better access to the Allegheny River would help. He also said that although there are a good number of sites and exhibits throughout that showcase the area’s heritage, many of them are suffering from wear-and-tear and could use updating.

A couple of the biggest issues the ORNHA is facing is the number of deteriorating historical buildings that Walker said cause eyesores and a negative image in key areas, as well as the lack of lodging that accommodates tourists staying for longer periods of time. He did point out the Caboose Motel in Titusville as a good example of lodging and called it “unique and a real novelty.”

From an economic standpoint, Gross said that in 2017, there were 21,400 jobs in the area, with a little over half of them falling in either the healthcare, manufacturing or retail categories. About half of the jobs in the ORNHA boundaries are also located in its three cities: Franklin, Oil City and Titusville.

Gross also pointed out that the area suffered from “significant” employment loss from 2006 to 2017. During that time, employment in the area fell by 10.3% with the loss of 2,500 jobs, most of which he said were in manufacturing and “resident-driven industries,” such as retail, education and healthcare.

Despite those numbers, the unemployment rate year-by-year in Venango County was on a relatively steady decline from 2010 to now, with the exception of earlier this year when unemployment skyrocketed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gross said.

On the tourism side, Gross said the annual visitor attendance to the ORNHA tends to land between 220,000 and 280,000 people, about 75% of which visit the local parks and participate in recreational activities.

A recent spike in use of the recreational areas can be attributed to the coronavirus pandemic, but Gross said the excess use is placing strain on the facilities and that the pandemic is also causing a loss in occupancy taxes that help fund them.

Looking ahead for the strategic plan, the next step following the kick-off meetings is to launch a “public opinion survey” that will give the project’s consultants an idea of what area residents’ perspectives of the ORNHA are, Burden said. The survey will be made public within the next couple weeks and can be taken online or on paper.

Coming up in October, the ORA will host a workshop that will consist of “presenting more information about findings to groups broken up by key topics,” Walker said, adding that the input from the workshop will help them put together the draft of the strategic plan.

Herdle can be reached by email at news@titusvilleherald.com.

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