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Amish Country Theater expansion in Berlin Township outlined

By CHRISTINE L. PRATT Staff Writer Published: February 18, 2017 5:00 AM

MILLERSBURG -- There are three legs to hospitality -- entertainment, food and lodging, and the owners and operators of Amish Country Theater are looking to expand operations to include all three.

Representing Amish County Theater, Mike Conn and Jeff Conn recently outlined the expansion plan for the Holmes County commissioners.

"We're excited. It's a big project for us," said Mike Conn, sharing with the commissioners the plan to construct a three-building complex in Berlin Township near Schrock's Amish Farm. The complex would include not only a theater, but event center and hotel, all of which would share a common lobby.

For the past five years, he said, they've grown the theater, capitalizing on a previously lacking entertainment need in the community felt by not only tourists, but locals. During that time, they've rented space in a facility between Berlin and Walnut Creek that previously served as a flea market.

"It's fun to make people laugh," he said, noting entertainment at the Amish Country Theater focuses on "good, clean, family fun."

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"It's something to do in the evenings. Something to keep people engaged so they'll stay overnight," added Jeff Conn, noting that in 150 shows last year, the theater provided entertainment to about 30,000 guests.

And, while they now have a good relationship with area hotels, they're increasingly fielding calls from theater-goers inquiring about lodging.

As they saw to a need with the entertainment component, a larger vision materialized.

"An event center is something our area needs," said Mike Conn, noting the new event center would be perfect for large group occasions -- proms, weddings and corporate events. At its current location, the business plays host to weddings and other events for up to 300 people.

As part of the plan, the current theater seating capacity of 400 would grow to 600. And, both the event center and theater would be complemented by an 80-room hotel.

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"It's a big risk for our family," said Mike Conn, who also told the commissioners to consider means by which they can help to make the project possible, for the benefit of the entire county.

He's inquired with other governmental entities that have used tax increment financing to help businesses in the retail, hospitality and service industries offset the cost of improvements, specifically to infrastructure.

A TIF is similar to an enterprise zone, although use is not restricted to businesses in the manufacturing industry. An economic development tool, the TIF allows money generated by an approved tax abatement to provide up-front money for infrastructure, according to Mark Leininger, executive director of the Holmes County Economic Development Council.

Up-front money could come from one of three sources -- the developer, the county or third-party investors, said Leininger, noting that even when third-party investors are used, the county does assume some risk.

That's because if the business fails to meet its obligation to the investors, the county does have some liability in maintaining infrastructure installed as part of the improvement.

Although the commissioners said they support local business and their growth within the county, they were hesitant about the TIF proposal, which Mike Conn said could provide funding for improvements to the water and wastewater systems.

"From our standpoint, it's good for the community. We're on the edge of pulling it off, but this would mitigate our out-of-pocket cost," said Mike Conn, adding that without a TIF or other financial assistance, they'll likely implement a Plan B, which will limit the most immediate project to the construction of a new theater.

Concerned about the potential liability to the county and how a TIF would fit into the project, Commissioner Rob Ault said he more favors researching grant opportunities that would help to mitigate the cost of improvements.

To the Conns, he said, "We support business. We'll do what we can. But we'll never put the county into risk financially."

Leininger said he would continue to research TIFs and instances where they have been both successful and not, noting, "I think it's good to look at some TIFs, but we don't have enough information right now."

An increased understanding, he said, could help the county better understand the liability risk and assess the value to the community.

Reporter Christine Pratt can be reached at 330-674-5676 or cpratt@the-daily-record.com.

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