Saturday, July 30, 2011

Better be prepared for the 'new normal'

Also published in the Tuscarawas County edition of the Bargain Hunter.

Dover City School District asks this question of prospective teachers:

“What do you think the main objectives of education should be in the United States today?”

The district provides about a dozen lines of space on its application for teacher candidates to answer the question. For sure, it’s a good question to ask. Educators need to have some idea of the big picture if they’re going to help provide our students with skill sets that ultimately will provide them some kind of job security in this “new normal” economy.

That “new normal” economy, if you haven’t been paying attention, is shedding jobs as fast as it adds them. And no sector appears to be safe from change. Today’s teenager probably will hold a number of different jobs in his/her lifetime in professions that have yet to be created and needing skills yet to be determined.

The HR Policy Assn., headquartered in Washington, D.C., recently provided an extensive answer to Dover’s question with its 126-page “Blueprint for Jobs in the 21st Century” and I would encourage educators, parents and policy-makers to spend the time reading it.

The HR Policy Assn. describes itself as the lead organization representing chief human resource officers of major employers, representing more than 300 of the largest corporations that employ a total of 10 million people.

Much of the “Blueprint” is focused on the need for our system to do a better job educating students in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math (acronym: STEM). No debate there.

Anecdotally and ironically, the report also underscores Amazon’s Kindle as a metaphor for what is occurring in the “new normal.”

Last week, Borders, the once dominant book seller in the United States, announced that it was closing all stores because it could not emerge from bankruptcy with any viable business plan. And that announcement came on the heels of one from Amazon a few months ago that it was selling more e-books this year than the traditional kind – paper pages between two covers.

“In just a few years, the rise of e-readers has made much of the work traditionally associated with publishing books, newspapers, and magazines obsolete,” says the report.

“The Kindle and other e-readers are replacing book stores, printing presses, and printing companies; all the materials such as ink, paper, fabric, and glue that go into book printing; the trucking companies that transport all of the materials used in the printing process and the final product from that process; and all the workers associated with all the activities of traditional book printing, such as publishing, warehousing, and operating retail stores.”

So, do you think we ought to be teaching kids what you were taught in school? Or should we ramp up the exercise a bit?

The Board of Directors of the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District seemed to surprise at least some of its critics last week when it put the future of the Atwood Lake Resort and Conference Center back on the table.

“You deal with it,” was their message to those who were protesting plans to raze the 104-room lodge that was opened in 1965.

The board indicated that it would be willing to turn the lodge over to the Carroll County commissioners (and/or others) for virtually nothing if they were willing to operate it and assume any debt that would be incurred.

And there’s the kicker. In its official news release issued after last Friday’s meeting, the MWCD offered this:

“Board members have stressed that because of the historical financial losses suffered by the operation of the resort since its opening in 1965, the MWCD will not provide any funding to assist in future operations by any new owner(s).”

So, in other words, if it is so important to the Carroll County economy, perhaps its citizens would go along with their commissioners pumping taxpayer money – millions of dollars – into the place to make it a more attractive destination. Like I said before, maybe it’s worth it to take a hit on revenue if the lodge produces as much or more revenue in other places.

And if none of that works, then the Carroll County commissioners can vote to raze it.

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Follow me on Facebook and Twitter (dfarrell_dover).

Monday, July 25, 2011

It's the business model, Congressman Gibbs

Originally published in the Bargain Hunter on July 22, 2011.

When I spotted the headline in the news rack, I had one of those you’ve-got-to-be-kidding moments, or as the kids are fond of texting: OMG.

“Gibbs: Auction Atwood Lodge, don’t demolish it.”

U.S. Rep. Bob Gibbs is a Johnny-come-lately to the intense debate over the future of Atwood Lake Lodge and Conference Center.

When we last visited the subject a couple of weeks ago, the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District board of trustees had just voted 3 to 2 to raze the structure, which was built in 1965 and which has been a traditional money-loser. The 104-room resort, now dated and in need of a massive makeover, has a 30 percent occupancy rate – horrible – and loses about $1 million a year.

The lodge has been for sale for more than a year, and the MWCD entertained and investigated a variety of proposals, none of which have panned out.

So, how does one go about auctioning off a lodge sitting on conservancy property, which is in need, according to the EPA, of a new water treatment system that would cost between $3 million and $4 million?

I’m assuming Gibbs wants his winning bidder to maintain the lodge as a lodge and not turn it into a warehouse, brothel, strip club or whatever. So, after the MWCD would spend hours writing prohibitions into the auction terms, including a clause that would hold the district harmless from incurred debt, we’d be back to Square One: the business model.

The issue has never been about the MWCD’s asking price. It’s always been about the business model. If Intercontinental Hotel Group or Hilton Worldwide offered to take over the lodge, improve it and cover all future incurred debt, I’m sure the MWCD would turn over the property for a nominal amount of money, say $1 a year, for the life of a lease.

But the fact remains that the culture has evolved. Families’ vacation preferences have changed. Businesses are holding far fewer off-site conferences at venues such as Atwood in the wake of the recession and the preferred destination for visitors to this part of the state has moved west to Amish Country.

Lodges at state parks similar to Atwood are hurting financially as well. Only the Lodge and Conference Center at Geneva State Park, built in 2004 for $24 million, is doing well, but part of the reason is that it carries no debt on the books. Ashtabula County issued bonds to fund the lodge and actually owns it. The cost to Ashtabula County taxpayers: $1.8 million per year (which may be worth it if it generates as much or more than that in tourism-related revenue).

Despite the reality of the situation, many people can’t let go of Atwood Lodge especially in Carroll County, which has benefited from the jobs and tax revenue it has created. And in the wake of the announcement that the MWCD planned to raze the structure, people have inundated the district with e-mails and phone calls – many of them nasty or threatening – as if the district was putting down a beloved pet.

Gibbs, meanwhile, might have been successful in his bid to at least delay demolition. One of the trustees who voted for razing the lodge – Richard J. Pryce – is a prominent Stark County Republican. And, of course, Gibbs is a Republican lawmaker, who carries at least some weight in party circles. Hmm. Could a stay of execution be in the offing?

We also hear that the MWCD is close to making a deal on the 18-hole golf course that is attached to the lodge property. That would be some good news for the folks in Carroll County, who believe they’ve been sucker-punched by the closure of the lodge and surrounding amenities.

But I am not optimistic about prospects for the lodge. I proposed a what-if situation for a friend of mine in the commercial banking business.

“What if I was interested in operating the lodge and figured I’d need about $20 million to bring the property up to snuff and had a reasonable business model that promised success?” I asked him. “Would you give me a loan?”

“Yeah, with an 80 percent down payment,” he replied with a smile. And therein lies the problem. He wasn’t kidding.

Dick Farrell is a contributor to the Bargain Hunter. You can access this column at You can read his blog at or follow him on Facebook and Twitter (dfarrell_dover).

Friday, July 22, 2011

Atwood Resort will not be torn down; alternatives being sought

The following is the official MWCD news release written by Darrin Laughtenschleger:

Atwood Lake Resort and Conference Center will not be scheduled for demolition at this time.

Instead, the resort is being offered for free to any willing government agency and if there are no takers, it then will be offered for sale and put on the auction block before any action is taken to demolish the closed Carroll County facility.

Before an overflow crowd that implored them to reconsider their action of June 30 to tear down the 104-room hotel and meeting center, members of the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District (MWCD) Board of Directors agreed Friday (July 22) to further efforts to revive the resort. Many members of the audience attending the Board’s monthly meeting in the Dellroy Community Center told Board members that a change in ownership could lead to a successful operation at the lodge, which lost more than $1 million in each of the past two years and has suffered from declining occupancy.

MWCD officials said they would contact numerous agencies – including Carroll County Commissioners, Kent State University at Tuscarawas and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources – and prepare a letter to formally detail the offer to donate the resort to another government agency. John M. Hoopingarner, MWCD executive director/secretary, said that a complete list of potential contacts will be developed as soon as possible.

The Board also agreed that if a new owner is not found, it will advertise the lodge for sale and if there is no buyer, arrange an auction of the facility. If there is no successful bidder at auction, the building then could be demolished and the MWCD will turn to development of new recreational facilities at the property.

More than 30 people in the crowd estimated at about 170 people spoke for nearly three hours to Board members during the meeting held only a couple of miles away from the resort. State Rep. Mark Okey of Carroll County and Carroll County Commissioner Thomas Wheaton were among those who requested that the Board reconsider its action to tear down the resort. Okey and Wheaton also mentioned that several state legislators sent a letter Thursday to the MWCD that requested that the Board reverse its earlier decision to raze the lodge.

Following the public comments, Board member David A. Parham of Carroll County introduced the motion that was then unanimously approved to suspend any plans to demolish the lodge and to seek the other potential alternatives.

“We saw the passion of the community in the Atwood region for Atwood Lake Resort,” said John M. Hoopingarner, MWCD executive director/secretary. “The Board of Directors took action today that will provide the community with an opportunity to potentially arrange for a new future direction for the resort.”

Board members have stressed that because of the historical financial losses suffered by the operation of the resort since its opening in 1965, the MWCD will not provide any funding to assist in future operations by any new owner(s).

In a 3-2 vote last month, the Board approved the demolition of the 46-year-old main lodge building and golf course pro shop, and directed the MWCD staff to focus on the development of the future recreational use of the 500-acre property. Board members William P. Boyle Jr. of Richland County, Richard J. Pryce of Stark County and Steve Kokovich of Muskingum County voted in favor of razing the buildings and developing a plan for renewed recreation use of the resort property, while board members Harry C. Horstman of Harrison County and Parham voted against the proposal.

Atwood Lake Resort, commonly referred to as “Atwood Lodge,” closed last October and has suffered from increasing deficits that exceeded $1 million in each of the past two years. Historically, the resort has not been a source of revenues for the MWCD, losing an average of more than $159,000 per year since it opened in 1965.

Occupancy rates and use of the resort’s guest and conference rooms had decreased sharply in recent years, while utility and maintenance costs for the main structure had increased. MWCD officials also said the increasing losses have hampered the conservancy district’s ability to address basic maintenance, infrastructure and customer requests at its other recreational operations at Leesville, Tappan, Clendening, Piedmont, Seneca, Wills Creek, Charles Mill, Pleasant Hill, Beach City and Atwood lakes, including its parks, campgrounds, cottage areas and marinas.

The conservancy district is spending more than $60,000 per month in utilities, insurance, taxes, general maintenance and security for the idle property, in addition to staff time. Sewer costs alone currently are $10,500 per month.

Atwood Lake Park, which is operated by the MWCD, and the two marinas located on Atwood Lake (Atwood Lake Boats Marina East and Atwood Lake Boats Marina West) remain open for business as usual.

Since the closing of Atwood Lake Resort, the MWCD Board of Directors, administration and staff of the MWCD have sought alternatives to its potential continued operation as a resort complex, including discussions with Kent State University at Tuscarawas and a resort operator who focuses on renewing financially failing properties. Kent State University at Tuscarawas continuously expressed its interest in being a part of any solution, including a possible partnership with the MWCD.

The MWCD Board of Directors announced in 2009 that one of its top goals was to divest the MWCD of the resort. Conservancy district officials spent all of 2009 and 2010 seeking alternative uses and owners for the property. The MWCD hosted a meeting for key stakeholders in the region in March 2010 at the resort to discuss the situation and participated in other public meetings throughout the year to obtain input.

The lodge is located off Rt. 542 between Sherrodsville and Dellroy in Carroll County and when it was fully operational, included the 104-room main hotel, dining room and conference center, two golf courses (an 18-hole regulation course and a lighted, nine-hole, par-3 course), 17 vacation cabins and indoor and outdoor swimming pools, along with other amenities.

The MWCD, a political subdivision of the state, was organized in 1933 to develop and implement a plan to reduce flooding and conserve water for beneficial public uses in the Muskingum River Watershed, the largest wholly contained watershed in Ohio. Since their construction, the 16 reservoirs and dams in the MWCD region have been credited for saving nearly $10 billion worth of potential property damage from flooding, according to the federal government, as well as providing popular recreational opportunities that bolster the region’s economy. A significant portion of the reservoirs are managed by the MWCD and the dams are managed for flood-risk management by the federal U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).

For more information about the MWCD, visit and on Facebook.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The cable guy is here (God help us)

This originally was published in the Tuscarawas and Holmes counties Bargain Hunter publications on July 15, 2011.

I don’t necessarily consider “The Simpsons” must-watch TV, but I do remember an episode that featured Homer trying to buy a handgun.

Homer went into the gun store, picked out a firearm, agreed to the price and offered to pay for it so he could take it home. The clerk told Homer that there was a government-imposed cooling-off period of three days before Homer could actually take possession of the gun.
“BUT I’M MAD NOW!” Homer screamed at the clerk.

I felt that way last Monday.

Monday is the day I reserve for writing these pieces for the Bargain Hunter and my plan last Monday was to knock this out before noon and get on with other chores. But it was not to be because dumb-old-me scheduled a house call from the cable guy, figuring that he’d be in and out in no time because after all I was just having trouble with a set-top box.

(That’s what the cable TV guys call the device that you need to get the good channels even though the box cannot set atop today’s TVs. They ought to be called set-next-to boxes or something like that. OK, I’m off subject…)
Anyway, this set-top box problem became larger than life because there were too many wires coming in the house and some weren’t configured correctly and signal strength was an issue and blah, blah, blah.

I had to travel through the house turning on sets in various rooms to make sure everything was working properly. In other words, the cable guy’s visit became very labor intensive and not conducive to me doing any kind of writing.
Then the cable guy – bless his heart – said he had orders from cable headquarters to “change out” my Internet modem.

“Why?” I asked. “It works fine.”

“Because it’s old,” said the cable guy.
Well, it was old – 2004. Yikes.

(Sidebar: If you’ve ever owned any device from Apple, you know that a span of seven years in technology life is akin to decrepit and elderly. Anyone out there own a 7-year-old iPod? No one? I thought so.)
So the cable guy installed a new cable modem, made a phone call and read some code to whomever was on the other end – maybe some sort of wizard – and pronounced the job complete. And because most of my morning was tied up, I moved the task of writing this piece to the early afternoon.

Alas, it was not to be.

Not long after the cable guy drove off, I discovered that my new modem didn’t work. And the thing about modems is that they either work, or don’t work. And if they don’t work, I DON’T HAVE ACCESS TO THE INTERNET!
It truly was a Homer Simpson moment.

You see, in the old days, I used files from the newspaper’s library to check facts and acquire background. The Internet, of course, changed that process. Now when I write about a particular issue, I might have a half-dozen Internet pages ready in the background to provide me with important facts when I need them. You know, like how many rooms are in Atwood Lodge.
At approximately 11:30 on that fateful Monday morning, I made my first phone call to the certain cable TV company to inform the good people there that the new modem wasn’t working properly. The cable girl on the phone – I didn’t catch her name – felt my pain and said someone would certainly be in touch in an hour or two.

At approximately 4:15, after Dover’s lights came back on after a rather severe storm, I called the cable company again. This time Crystal the cable girl answered.
She felt my pain, too, but she couldn’t get anyone there until late Tuesday.

“Late Tuesday?” I asked.
“I need the Internet now! My life depends on it!”

I’m sure I sounded like Homer Simpson.
Crystal promised me that someone would be in touch in a couple of hours and would put me on the “roll back” list, which presumably is a really special list of customers who are close to having mental health breakdowns if they don’t get service quickly.

When I hung up after talking to Crystal I realized that I might have to write a column without my safety net. And I knew that it was unlikely the cable company would call back. It didn’t.
So, this week I offer you a naked, no-Internet commentary -- a life experience so to speak, and one that needed no research.  And hopefully it underscores the disappearing act called customer service.

Homer Simpson would understand.
Dick Farrell is a contributor to the Bargain Hunter. You can access this column at You can read his blog at or follow him on Facebook and Twitter (dfarrell_dover).

Friday, July 8, 2011

So, do you want to buy Atwood Lodge?

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This was originally published by the Bargain Hunter, but only online. I didn't make the cut for the print edition. Que sera, sera.

News that the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District plans to raze Atwood Lake Resort and Conference Center shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.

Its history is awash in red ink, bad decisions, unfavorable market conditions and a changing culture. For years, the MWCD has propped up the lodge with money that could have been used elsewhere in the 18-county district and therein lies the issue with three of the five board members who voted to finally end the lodge’s existence.

William P. Boyle Jr. of Richland County, Richard J. Pryce of Stark County and Steve Kokovich of Muskingum County remained unconvinced there was a future for the 104-room hotel that dates to 1965.

Harry C. Horstman of Harrison County and David L. Parham of Carroll County voted against razing the lodge, holding out hope there’d be a solution sooner rather than later.

The lodge sits on a hilltop overlooking Atwood Lake. The view is magnificent. The lodge offered indoor and outdoor pools, tennis courts, a lighted Par 3 golf course, an 18-hole golf course and walking trails.

Unfortunately, it did not offer easy access to the waterfront, a mistake made when the lodge was located on the hillside rather than at water’s edge. Nonetheless, from Memorial Day through Labor Day, the lodge was a hustling, bustling place – a destination in the early days.

But what happened since? Amish Country, just a few miles to the west, exploded in popularity. High-end hotels were built in Holmes and Wayne counties that attracted visitors who otherwise might have chosen Atwood Lodge in the autumn or spring.

Families preferred the kid-friendly indoor water parks, such as Kalahari, Great Wolf Lodge and other similar properties near Sandusky. Men preferred hooking up with buddies on southern golf courses. Women headed to spas and boutique hotels near big cities and prime shopping spots.

Life changed a lot since 1965. The lodge did not.

So, with the property losing an estimated $1 million a year, the plug was pulled.

Contrary to popular belief, or at least the beliefs contained in posted online comments, there was no conspiracy.

The MWCD reached the decision more than a year ago to sell the property to whoever thought they could make a go of it. It gave time to an independent developer to come up with a plan and financing in order to save the place. He couldn’t.

Kent State-Tuscarawas explored the possibility of using the lodge as an educational extension of its role in the Tuscarawas Valley. But the numbers wouldn’t work.

The bottom line is the lodge had a horrible 30-percent occupancy rate. It was virtually empty from Labor Day to Memorial Day.

And to compete with modern hotels and resorts, it needed a massive overhaul, including all the technological advances that patrons expect throughout the property.

Most of all, it needed an entity with deep pockets, good cash flow and an enviable credit line to take control.

It was not to be.

So, Atwood Lodge, which was never an architectural gem, is destined to join the ranks of properties such as the Richfield Coliseum, Three Rivers Stadium, Euclid Beach Park (a personal favorite), and other venues and destinations that remain in our hearts and memories, but which have exhausted their usefulness.

Que sera, sera, Atwood Lodge. You had a nice run.

Dick Farrell is a contributor to the Bargain Hunter. You can access this column at You can read his blog at or follow him on Facebook and Twitter (dfarrell_dover).

Saturday, July 2, 2011

These are not the good old days for daily newspapers

Originally published in the Bargain Hunter on July 1, 2011.

I fear that in five or in at least 10 years, communities the size of Dover-New Philadelphia will be remembering the good old days when they boasted having their own daily newspapers.

The news over the last several weeks hasn’t been good. Consider:

- Gannett Corp. announced it was laying off another 700 employees at its community newspapers, which I’m assuming includes publications in east central Ohio – in Coshocton, Newark and Mansfield, among others.

- Journal Register Co. CEO John Paton said the value of journalism is “about zero.” Journal Register owns the Lorain Morning Journal and Lake County News-Herald in Ohio and used to own the Times-Reporter. My guess is that Paton’s view is widely held in publishing companies’ corporate board rooms.

- Media General ordered its employees to take off 15 days without pay by the end of the year.

- McClatchey Newspapers has been cutting scores of jobs since Jan. 1.

Here’s what happened in the run-up to the Great Recession:

Beginning in the late ’80s with junk bond financing widely available, publishing companies began to devour privately held community newspapers across the country. Many of those companies assumed tremendous amounts of debt as they formed groups of newspapers. If they weren’t publicly traded, they wanted to be.

As the trend continued into the ’90s and ’00s, the corporate guys used terms such as “synergy” and “clusters” to tout their business strategy. Editors and reporters referred to it as “cookie cutter.”

In my 19 years as editor of The Times-Reporter, I worked for three different owners – Journal Register (1990-2001), Copley Press (2001-2006) and Gatehouse Media (2006 to 2009).

Journal Register, led by the late Bob Jelenic, had a reputation as a vicious cost-cutter. That’s how you maximized profit to pay off the insane debt they assumed to own you.

Jelenic and his gang of corporate types conducted budget reviews for the coming year every October. They were grueling experiences, often lasting into the early morning hours. During one of them, I had to argue my case for increasing our three photographers’ monthly equipment expense by 10 percent.

Back then, JRC didn’t own the equipment photographers used. It was up to the photographer to stay up with current technological trends. But every line item budget increase was scrutinized as if it would single-handedly break the company.

By calling for a 10 percent increase in the equipment budget, I had committed a sin, and it had to be explained.

I told them that I didn’t think increasing the equipment budget from $100 to $110 a month was out of line when photographers were being asked to buy professional camera bodies and lenses for hundreds upon hundreds of dollars.

After 15 or so minutes of back-and-forth, Jelenic looked up from the USA Today he was reading and told his team to move on.

I won that one.

So, in the middle of all this cost-cutting, the Internet exploded and JRC seemed not to have a clue how to deal with it. In fairness, neither did anyone else.

Fast forward to 2006 when newspaper companies were still snatching up properties and paying too much. More budget cutting was on the agenda and orders were given to editors to consolidate and streamline. Cookie cutter anyone?

Oh, and “news” became “content.”

But a cultural sea of change was taking place. The Internet became the preferred provider of that “content.” And most of it was free.

Older readers, meanwhile, remained largely loyal to newspapers, but young people were abandoning print in droves. Advertisers shifted money to platforms that gave them the best bang for their buck.

Want to sell a car or rent an apartment? Craigslist.

What’s on TV? A couple of clicks on the computer gets you the answer.

Researching real estate? Trulia aggregates the information in your local community just fine.

The franchise for local news, however, in communities across the country belonged to and still belongs to the daily newspapers. But they are losing their grip as they continue to cut the cost of content-making because they’re selling fewer papers and ads and because they’re underwater on their assets – big time.

No longer are they sending reporters to school board meetings or to county offices. They’re not looking at the court dockets or covering trials. With newsroom staffing cut by 50 percent or more, it’s impossible to do the kind of journalism they did even in the lean years of the ’90s.

If daily community newspapers were pizzerias, they’d be trying to sell you a pie without the cheese or sauce.

You want toppings? Forget it.

Perhaps JRC’s Paton is right. The value of crust is “about zero.”