By DAVE MAST
Millions and millions of dollars have flowed through Holmes County the past six years over the Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, a time in the middle of winter when tourism is at its weakest in the heart of Ohio’s Amish Country.
That cash flow is attributed to the Classic in the Country, Holmes County’s high school girls basketball showcase, which has grown into one of the premier high school athletic events, not just in Ohio, but in the nation. Drawing hundreds of college scouts and coaches, tens of thousands of fans to Holmes County for a weekend full of basketball, entertainment and fun, the Classic has been a beacon of light in what has been a normally dreary winter time for businesses in and around the county.
However, according to Tom Jenkins, who operates the weekend along with Hiland girls coach Dave Schlabach, with tough times facing businesses from an economic standpoint, and other local businesses riding the coattails of the success of the Classic without actually being any kind of sponsor, the event is much more strapped for cash, as the coordinators continue to try to put together a weekend that will continue to draw the national spotlight to Amish Country.
“It’s been tough this year, because while we have businesses which have really grasped the concept of bringing people to Holmes County in a down time,” said Jenkins, “we have others out there who are reaping all of the benefits of the wave of people coming into the county for that weekend, without bothering to sponsor even the smallest amount. It’s disappointing, because they don’t seem to grasp the overall concept of this being a community event.”
Jenkins added that he has many excellent examples of sponsors who know the value of bringing people in, not just for the weekend, but once they experience Holmes County, they return on later dates to enjoy the area without the round ball in the picture.
He singled out the weekend’s main sponsor, Ben Mast, of Dutch Legacy Creations, who has sponsored the event since its inception, yet does not benefit one cent during the Classic weekend.
“Ben sees the bigger picture,” said Jenkins. “He understands the value of introducing people to Amish Country who might not otherwise ever come here. He recognizes what it means to the community.”
Other business owners who do have a direct relationship to the weekend festivities also understand how blessed they are during the slow winter time windfall that is the Classic.
Kent Miller, manager of the Comfort Suites in Berlin and Comfort Inn in Millersburg, said they are sold out at Berlin for all three days and even experience a huge uptick in Millersburg during the weekend.
“It’s been a breath of fresh air in the middle of winter for us, and I know it is for a lot of other places around here,” said Miller. “The Classic has been a real shot in the arm for our economy for the county as a whole. A lot of places benefit from bringing in so many people into the county for a three day weekend like that, and it’s happened year after year.”
Even lodging sites removed from Berlin have felt the effect. Bill Robinson, owner of Hotel Millersburg, said he supports the Classic because it is the right thing to do for the county, as well as creating business for his facility.
“We absolutely benefit,” said Robinson. “We’re filled for three days in a dead season for us. Our restaurant benefits greatly. We have a lot of scouts stay here, and we’ve seen it make a great impact on our hotel and other places. It really is what powers us through the winter months.”
Another outlying hotel and restaurant, The Amish Door Restaurant and Village in Wilmot, has been the recipient of the success of the Classic. For manager Eric Gerber, the draw to participate is two-fold. One, it creates plenty of patronage at both the hotel and restaurant, which are packed during the weekend. But just as important, it helps bring honor to legendary Hiland coach Perry Reese, Jr., whom Gerber had the privilege to play for as a senior.
“To be able to give back to the community by honoring Coach is a real blessing for me,” said Gerber. “Perry was more than a coach, he was a true friend, and I could go to him with anything, and he’d always be here for me, and for anyone. That’s the kind of guy he was. Every time I walk past the cardboard cutout of him at the Classic. I have to think about what he meant to this county. Knowing that a portion of what we are spending, our sponsorship money, goes toward the Perry Reese College Foundation, and seeing how many kids have benefited from it makes it easy for us to get involved.”
While it’s easy to see the dollar signs during Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, what people may not see are the countless return trips by patrons who fall in love with Holmes County when they visit. One such example is Dan Olson, owner of College Girls Basketball Report based out of Florida. Olson got involved with the Classic at the request of Jenkins. Once here, he not only became smitten with the tournament and all of the incredible talent on the floor, but traveled the area and found that there was plenty to see here that was worth coming back for later.
What are the residual effects of the Classic? Ask Homestead Furniture, which has nothing to do with basketball, but is currently designing and creating a beautiful new desk for Olson, who works from his home and wanted something he knew would be there for many years because of the great handcrafted Amish handiwork.
“I’m at my desk 10 to 12 hours each day, and I needed something I knew would be of the highest quality,” said Olson. “I stopped in at Homestead while I was up here last year, and I knew that they would do an incredible job. For me, it was worth coming up here for a desk, knowing that I would get the very best in quality, and something that would last.”
Jenkins said that the list of residual benefits being felt by area businesses is mounting each year, as people come back during the spring, summer and fall to visit Holmes County.
“Our need is greater than ever,” said Jenkins. “I hope that people can see the value of what they are gaining from the Classic. This event has such far-reaching ramifications for all of us here. If you surveyed people outside of Holmes County, for many, girls high school basketball would rank right there next to the Amish tourism trade. We’re not here to make money for ourselves. If that were the case, we’d be doing something else. Ultimately, this is for the benefit of the businesses of Holmes County. We understand that everyone’s own events are what is most important to them, but we hope that people will see how vital this event is to the county’s economy as a whole.”
Anyone wishing to become a sponsor for the Classic may contact Jenkins at 330-893-9305.