Stark County Brewers forge ahead with plans for their own Ale Trail

Partnership with Canton Visitors Bureau breaks down; breweries to move forward without their financial backing

An 11th Hour Hail Mary thrown up by the Canton Visitors Bureau (also known as Visit Canton) failed to change the minds of a majority of Stark County breweries who had signed on to launch the Hall Of Fame Hops Brew Tour on April 1st.

“Ultimately, in order to feel comfortable in the investment, the CVB has to have discretion to be inclusive of Stark County tourism partners that make sense to the program, and if we do not feel it is possible to make reasonable decisions without it resulting in tumult we agree it is best not to move forward,” wrote Tonja Marshall, VP of Marketing and Communications for Visit Canton in an email to the brewers.

“As demonstrated in our willingness to include out of county partners in this promotion, we have an inclusive mindset.  It is not about you vs. them, it is about what WE can all accomplish by working and cross-promoting one another together.”

Marshall’s email continued: “It would be a shame to have to end what would have been an amazing initiative that we both want to accomplish due to a lack of ability to compromise and work collaboratively toward a common goal.  Please consider this our final outcry to reconsider.  Due to the short timeline, we will have to make the final call no later than end of day Monday.  We would greatly appreciate your taking one last consideration over the weekend at making the program work together.”

As we and other publications reported this past Friday afternoon, at issue was primarily the inclusion of The Crush House at Gervasi Vineyard in Canton. The CVB was adamant that any trail they signed on to promote include Gervasi, a major tourism draw for the region. The brewers, for their part, wanted the trail to be a brewery only trail, in the same vein as the Summit Brew Path and Columbus Ale Trail.

Jason Gasper-Hulvat, Head Of Brewing Operations at Canton’s Shale Brewing Company responded via email to the CVB that read, in part: “[We are] very disappointed to read that the enthusiastic participation of Stark County’s breweries is inadequate for the CVB to “feel comfortable in the investment” without the inclusion of a “major tourism partner” in Stark County …

“The decisions on what falls within your goals and what CVB is willing to support are certainly yours to make. That said it feels disingenuous that an initiative would be incompatible with the mission of the CVB or statutory purpose of the lodging tax dollars if that initiative would only include the county’s breweries. The CVB already promotes similar, or more narrowly inclusive ‘Trip Ideas’ including visiting the county’s wineries and even Gervasi as a destination in and of itself.

“As my colleagues have already pointed out it does not seem your group understand what has made other brew paths a success. Further you appear disinterested in the input and concerns of the businesses that lend credibility to a brew path making sense as a project.”

With the end of day Monday deadline to reconsider now passed, the group of brewers, which includes Fat Heads Canton, Maize Valley, Shale, Royal Docks, Canton, Lockport, Sandy Springs, Paradigm Shift, and the forthcoming Muskellunge Brewing Company, plans to meet this Wednesday morning to forge a new path. They will do so without what Visit Canton’s Marshall said was a planned “minimum annual hard cost cash investment of $75,000 in sustaining and promoting the trail”.

For the brewers, it’s not about the money. It’s about the spotlight being put on the breweries and nothing else, just as much as it is about the slippery slope of including a venue that does not brew its own beer on site. While Gervasi does not brew its own, they do have a contractual arrangement in which Akron’s Thirsty Dog brews exclusive beers under the Gervasi name which are served on site. The CVB for its part made clear that “if there are other examples of Stark County businesses in addition to Gervasi that have their own unique craft brew recipes served only at local establishments, we would indeed also be open to their inclusion.”

“Yeah, it is certainly hard to turn down the financial resources they have,” said Gasper-Hulvat. “At the same time, it feels wrong being forced to include a destination which would not make sense to include if it was not considered by CVB to be an important tourism partner in order to get money which is meant to support tourism to the county.”

Gasper-Hulvat added that while this initiative did not work out, he would not rule out participating in a broader initiative (perhaps something like a Craft Beverage trail including wineries, meaderies, and distilleries) that could “attract visitors to destinations in the county without co-opting the current interest in craft breweries to tie in the tourist destinations CVB wants to promote.”

“I think based on the conversations I’ve had”, he went on, “that several, but not all of the county breweries would potentially join a broader trail marketed as such, where few if any seem interested in letting CVB lead/partner on a beer specific one, in light of this experience.”

The new tour, funded and promoted solely by the breweries themselves, will look to add Holmes County’s Millersburg Brewing and Wayne County’s JAFB-Wooster Brewery, and hopes to launch by May 1st.

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