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Conferences good for area

May 29, 2008
By DAVE GOSSETT, staff writer
STEUBENVILLE — Dani Swearingen has never attended a summer conference at the Franciscan University of Steubenville.

But the co-owner of the Hilltop Haven bed and breakfast in Toronto looks forward to the seven adult summer conferences and their financial aspects every year.

“If it wasn’t for Franciscan University, I would have had to shut my doors,” Swearingen said.

According to a 2004 study, “it is estimated that the 11,000 annual participants at the university conferences and meetings spend approximately $680,000 a year within Jefferson County.”

The economic impact study prepared by university professors Michael Welker and Joseph Zoric noted those funds excluded meals, lodging, goods and services purchased at the university campus.

“This expenditure impacts the retail and hospitality industries in the area, having an effect on the local economy.

“Hotels, meals at local restaurants, gasoline and a wide range of retail purchases are among the expenditures. Typically, a conference participant will stay for 2.25 days, although some stay longer,” the study reported.

“There aren’t a lot of accommodations in the immediate area for visitors to the university. I am tickled to be here and able to provide accommodations for at least two families or couples. At least 70 percent of my business is from Franciscan University,” explained Swearingen.

The Hilltop Haven bed and breakfast is one of a number of local businesses that reap financial benefits from the summer conferences held every year at the university.

The first of seven adult conferences opens Friday when the young adults conference begins at the university campus.

And chances are many of the conference participants will stop at Earl Cramblett’s BP Gas Station on University Boulevard where photos of several of the Franciscan priests at the university adorn the outer office wall.

Cramblett will sell gas and offer advice about and directions to local places to visit.

“During the adult conferences, they help fill the weekend void of the seven-day week. Weekend traffic can be skimpy on University Boulevard and the people who attend the conferences have a great impact on our city,” Cramblett stated.

“We are lucky to have the university located here. They are a real plus for this area,” Cramblett added.

Beth Wood, executive director of the Steubenville Convention and Visitors Bureau, said virtually every hotel in the area is filled during the adult summer conferences.

“These are visitors to the area who are spending money on gas, food, some shopping, housing and entertainment. The conferences have a very positive impact on the area,” said Wood.

“And we can see the financial impact when we receive our bed tax report from the hotels in the city,” Wood noted.

Sodexho Food Service, the company that operates the campus cafeteria and Heavenly Grounds Coffee Shop on University Boulevard, employs an additional 40 employees in June and July just for the conferences.

“Normally we would have 10 summer employees at our cafeteria and coffee shop. But the summer conferences mean we keep an extra 40 employees at 30 hours a week who would normally be laid off,” said Doug Orr, Sodexho general manager.

“Those employees would be out looking for other jobs. But we can keep them employed, which is good for everyone,” added Orr.

“In addition to the extra employees, we also purchase food supplies from local vendors such as Steubenville Fruit, Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola as well as food suppliers from the Pittsburgh area,” Orr noted.

“Most of the colleges and universities Sodexho services across the country are nowhere near this busy during the summer months.

“These conferences have a major impact on the local economy and a lot of dollars go to local businesses and local people, directly or indirectly,” said Orr.

Mark Nehrbas, executive director of Christian Outreach at Franciscan University of Steubenville, said the university offers some campus housing and meal plans for conference attendees, “but a lot of people will go to the area restaurants, hotels and motels off campus. We can’t provide housing for everyone so we work with the local businesses to list available accommodations on our Web site and in our handouts when the people register for a conference.

“And conference participants also will spend leisure time at local restaurants or area tourism sites,” said Nehrbas.

“I am on the board of directors for the convention and visitors bureau and we include CVB brochures in our registration packets to make our visitors aware of potential locations to visit beyond the university,” explained Nehrbas.

“And we will get questions on how people can get to the local grocery store or pharmacy so we are prepared with directions to Hollywood Plaza because that location is near our campus, “ he added.

The first adult summer conference will start Friday and continue through Sunday.

Additional adult and youth conferences are set for the college campus in June and July.

“If they are looking for a local Catholic church to attend Mass, I suggest St. Peter’s Catholic Church or Holy Family Catholic Church because of the convenience,” said Nehrbas.

The financial impact is also felt indirectly during the summer conferences when the Franciscan University Bookstore employs 12 extra student workers, scheduled from 20 to 40 hours a week to accommodate conference shoppers.

According to bookstore Manager John Recznik, “the bookstore sees 14,000 visitors from the summer conferences, with sales that account for 20 to 25 percent of total annual revenues.”

“Basically, the summer conferences are our version of the peak Christmas retail season. Visitors buy religious items such as rosaries, prayer books, books written by conference speakers and lots of Franciscan University of Steubenville T-shirts, sweat shirts, coffee mugs, banners and related gift items that take the name Steubenville to almost every state,” Recznik stated.

University spokesman Tom Sofio said the school’s physical plant staff is increased by “an additional dozen employees for cleaning and maintaining the campus grounds and residence halls during the conferences.”

And the conferences also have financial benefits for the university.

“We see about $2 million a year come in from the conferences. And that allows us to maintain a full-time staff for our Christian outreach,” said Nehrbas.

He noted many people who attend the summer conferences and stop at local businesses, “remark about the friendliness of the local residents. That is something they really notice here.

“We have had visitors from all 50 states, although our conference attendees are usually from about 35 states and several other countries. We get a lot of participants from Canada, but also see people from England, Australia and we already have a pre-registration from Pakistan for this summer,” Nehrbas related.

Swearingen said the conference visitors who frequent her Toronto bed and breakfast tell her local residents, “are very friendly and laid back. We think we are always busy but the visitors, especially from the western states, say we are very laid back and they enjoy coming here for that feeling.

“We get people from different states and other countries at the bed and breakfast for the conferences. I get to travel through their eyes,” Swearingen said.

(Gossett can be contacted at

Article Photos

Dave Gossett
PREPARING FOR CONFERENCES — Katie Vandenbergh, a Franciscan University of Steubenville and a Christian Outreach employee, explains the summer conference schedule to an interested participant. Once the conferences start, attendees are handed conference material and a list of area restaurants and lodging locations that can bring more than $600,000 to the local economy.

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