LIMA — If the Blue Caboose is open, it must be tourism season in Allen County.
The Lima-Allen County Convention and Visitors Bureau opened up the Blue Caboose Tourist Information Center for the 24th time Friday. The annual event kicks off the tourism season in the region and always comes just as the bureau prepares for the largest single event in the county: the 4-Wheel Jamboree Nationals at the Allen County Fairgrounds.
The Jamboree attracts 35,000 people to Allen County and generates more than $6 million in the local economy, said Cara Stombaugh, director of tourism and communications for the visitors bureau.
That many people visiting and staying adds up, Stombaugh said. Also, large events like this weekend’s at the fairgrounds help breed more tourism. Word spreads about Lima and Allen County’s hospitality, organization and venues.
“Someone shops at the grocery store, fills up the gas tank, stays in a hotel,” Stombaugh said. “It’s a huge impact. Even the attention paid to our community, the media attention, the people who come here and are greeted by smiling faces. The people being made aware of our attractions.”
The Caboose, on Roschman Avenue behind Howard Johnson near the Interstate 75 / state Route 309 interchange, is staffed daily by about 20 volunteers. The bureau welcomes more volunteers and has been known to recruit folks stopping in looking for a brochure, Stombaugh said. The caboose is open seven days a week through Labor Day weekend.
In 2012, tourism specialists helped 1,500 people from 32 states and six countries. They provide local and regional information about what’s happening and also provide information about hotels, restaurants and directions. That last one has given the volunteers a challenge this year, Stombaugh said, with the major reconstruction of I-75.
But they’re up to that challenge, as volunteers and bureau staff have worked closely with the Ohio Department of Transportation on updates. Those staffing the Caboose are even driving through the construction from time to time, Stombaugh said, so they can better understand and explain it to drivers.
“We’re trying our best to spread the word, and make it as accurate and up-to-date as possible,” Stombaugh said.