Summit focuses on boosting economies, tourism along Ohio River

Leaders from communities spread along 275 miles of the Ohio River are gathering in Madison, Ind. this month for two days of discussion on how to unlock the potential of the river.

The third annual Ohio River Way Summit is scheduled for Oct. 25-26. This year’s theme is “The Power of Collaboration: Turning Ripples to Waves along the Ohio.”

Those in attendance will explore how the region can best take advantage of the river for everything from recreation to tourism to economic development. The current roster of participants includes representatives from more than 100 local governments, tourism bureaus, federal agencies, nonprofits and business stakeholders in West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky.

Organizations from Southwest Ohio expected to attend include Green Umbrella, the City of Cincinnati, Groundwork Ohio River Valley and others.

“The Ohio River is our region’s most valuable natural asset. This summit explores how we can leverage it to drive all kinds of community health benefits that stem from recreation, restoration, and economic development,” said Mark Noll, executive director of the event’s organizer, Ohio River Way.

A stretch of the Ohio River that runs through Madison, Ind.
A stretch of the Ohio River that runs through Madison, Ind.

The event kicks off with several experiences aimed at highlighting how Madison has successfully included the riverfront into the fabric of its community. Attendees will take walking tours of the city’s Main Street and go on paddling excursions in 30-foot-long Voyageur canoes. 

The second day of the summit will focus on discussion, featuring a variety of panels, breakout sessions and presentations. Highlights include a panel on “The Interplay between Trails and Communities” and a keynote address by Stephan Nofield from the National Park Service. There will also be a preview of Morgan Atkinson’s upcoming documentary about the river.

“The energy in our region is palpable. We have made incredible progress over the past year, and we’re excited to harness the power of collaborating in-person,” said Frances Mennone, a board member of the Ohio River Way and managing director of Frost, Brown & Todd’s Project Finance Advisors.

Brewster Rhoads at the annual Paddlefest.

The Ohio River Way is a Cincinnati-based nonprofit created to assist people find adventure, inspire care for the land and water, and boost the economies of vibrant Ohio River communities. They do so by building partnerships that promote safe outdoor recreation, education and tourism. 

Founded about four years ago, the organization is using events such as the summit to spur the collaboration. They have about 150 events across the region throughout the year.

Brewster Rhoads, chair of the Ohio River Way, called the river the region’s most defining natural asset.

“It’s the reason why every community along the river was founded in the first place,” he said. “It’s the source of our drinking water. It’s a place for us to recreate. It’s the postcard that visitors send home when they come and check us out.”

Many of the cities along the Ohio River have gone through “years of decline,” Rhoads said. He views the body of water as an opportunity to attract visitors, residents and businesses to Cincinnati and elsewhere by leaning into what he referred to as “recreation and Natural Resources economy.”

One of the Ohio River Way’s biggest goals necessary to secure designation from the National Park Service as a National Water Trail, according to Rhoads. He described the distinction as being vital to giving the region visibility as a “national destination for adventure, eco and heritage tourism.” There are only 35 such designations across the country.

“We want to attract people who love to paddle, to fish, to hike, to camp to just to have a beautiful view from their riverfront home,” he added. “At the summit, we’re going to spend time having discussions on how to make that happen in Cincinnati and elsewhere.”

Ohio River Way Summit registration, event schedule