SANDUSKY — There’s more to working at an amusement park than operating rides and filling drink cups.
There’s accounting and marketing, customer relations and safety regulations. Those topics, and more, will make up a new four-year degree offered by Bowling Green State University, in a partnership with the city of Sandusky and Cedar Fair, the parent company of Cedar Point.
The new degree in Resort and Attraction Management will be offered at a new BGSU campus in downtown Sandusky, set to open as soon as the fall of 2020.
Here’s how it will work:
• Cedar Fair will build both the new classroom building as well as dorms for 200 students, an investment of $15 million to $25 million. It will also provide summer internships for students, and guest lectures and case studies for classes.
• Bowling Green will run the program, which will constitute the last two years of a four-year bachelor’s degree.
• The city of Sandusky will provide the land, as well as other financial support in the form of grants or tax breaks.
The state of Ohio has already kicked in $800,000, part of the capital budget that was introduced in Columbus earlier this month.
The goal is twofold: Better prepare young people for the increasing number of jobs at Cedar Fair and other attractions-based companies in the tourism industry; and help Sandusky transform its seasonal, summertime economy with more full-year, high-paying jobs.
“This demonstrates how a public university can work with a very important company based in Ohio, to meet their needs,” said Rodney Rogers, the president of Bowling Green.
The idea has been in the works for several years, since Bowling Green organized some leadership development programs for Cedar Fair.
Rogers said there is nothing exactly like this new program in the United States, although the University of Central Florida in Orlando offers a similar certificate program in tourism management, in partnership with Walt Disney World.
The Sandusky buildings will be considered part of Bowling Green’s Firelands branch campus, in nearby Huron. Students might come from Firelands or BGSU’s main campus, or from other universities across the country.
Rogers expects strong interest from international students, as well.
Students will attend classes during the school year and work at Cedar Point or another Cedar Fair property for two summers. Those jobs might start at entry level, but move up to lower-level management.
“Students sometimes want to skip those first steps,” said Cedar Point General Manager Jason McClure, but it’s important for future managers to have experience at all levels. “We afford a quick opportunity for a young person to be able to supervise.”
According to Rogers, traditional hospitality management programs, including an existing BGSU major in Tourism, Leisure and Event Planning, don’t cover some of the issues specific to amusement parks and other destinations with attractions at their center.
Lest you think this is all fun and games, take a look at some of the suggested courses: Management Information Systems for Resorts and Attractions, Legal Environment of the Hospitality Industry, Operation Planning and Supply Chain Management for Resorts and Attractions.
“In many ways, these general managers are running a small city,” said Rogers. In addition to employees operating rides, they’re supervising a security staff, food and beverage operations, hotels, retail and more. “It’s almost more like a city manager than hospitality management.”
McClure said he’s looking for employees who can connect everything together, from rides to food to hotels.
“That’s one of our bigger challenges, as a company,” he said. “Employees have to have the ability to understand the entire experience. You may not think rides can affect the food and beverage experience, but it does. Our guests don’t think of these things as separate.”
Graduates, as many as 100 a year, might be hired by Cedar Point or one of Cedar Fair’s other 12 parks, other amusement park companies or other destinations that revolve around attractions — ski resorts, perhaps, or waterpark resorts, zoos or even museums, said McClure.
But first: Officials are working to locate a property for the new campus.
Sandusky City Manager Eric Wobser said the new school will be an anchor to ongoing downtown revitalization efforts in Sandusky, which is celebrating its bicentennial this year.
He also hopes it solidifies the region’s commitment to Cedar Fair, which, when it merged with Paramount Parks in 2006, acquired a second executive office, in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“We don’t take Cedar Fair’s presence for granted,” said Wobser. “We know that for them to stay put, they’re going to need to be able to attract talent.”
Combined, Cedar Point and Cedar Fair employ about 500 people in Sandusky full-time, with another 5,000 added during the operating season. They are the chief driver of Erie County’s growing tourism economy.
Wobser said the city has narrowed down the search for land to a handful of locations and should make a final decision in a month or two. Design work and construction will soon follow.
Wobser acknowledges that 2020 seems like a short timeframe to get a new college up and running, but he said Cedar Point is used to moving quickly, constructing massive, elaborate roller coasters in a few months’ time.
“The good news is that Cedar Point is used to building fast,” said Wobser.