A lot of things come to mind when you think of Oglebay — the Festival of Lights, the Good Zoo, Oglebayfest — just to name a few. But there is something else that takes place at Oglebay in the off-season that brings in people from all over the world. You’ve probably never even heard of it, but it boosts the Wheeling economy every winter and is responsible for keeping the lodge full of guests, booking close to 8,000 rooms a year.
Since 1960, Oglebay has hosted continuing education classes, and they are showing no signs of stopping what could be considered one of Oglebay’s best keep secrets — their National Training Center.
Each year, Oglebay hosts nine organizations that offer classes at the National Training Center (NTC) — these organizations range from Park and Recreation Maintenance Management School to a Medical Transport Leadership Institute. Currently, there are talks of more classes in development.
John Hargleroad has been the director of the NTC for two years but has been associated with the schools for over 40 years.
“People don’t really know we do it, but it’s a significant shot in the arm to the Wheeling economy and allows us to employ a lot of people in the winter,” Hargleroad said.
The NTC has roots back to 1960 when the first park and recreation training took place at Oglebay. The training offered was in revenue management, and it was presented in partnership with North Carolina State University, the American Institute of Park Executives and Oglebay. This resulted in the first course, Revenue School, and it was offered in partnership with the National Recreation and Park Association.
Over the years, additional schools were developed with a variety of partners. Some schools have withstood the test of time, and some are no longer presented. The NTC, as it is known today, officially came into existence in 2005 through a grant from the federal government, brought on by the efforts of former West Virginia Sen. Robert C. Byrd. Now, Oglebay hosts organizations affiliated with everything from how to properly run a refreshment stand at an event to how to be an elephant keeper at a zoo.
What is it about Oglebay specifically that makes it a great location and so successful for the NTC? For starters, the park’s secluded site. Hargleroad said that Oglebay’s location is perfect.
“Half of the population the United States lives within a day’s drive of Oglebay. Our retreat-like setting is appealing. In larger urban areas there are distractions from training,” he said.
Oglebay’s proximity to the Pittsburgh airport and I-70 makes it very accessible. And it shows with the range of students who attend the courses at the NTC. Students come from all over the U.S., and some schools are international. One of the first classes offered this year was the Event Management School held Jan. 13-18. That particular week of training saw students from 29 states, the District of Columbia and Canada. Two instructors were Australian, and one was Canadian. The instructors who walk through the doors of Oglebay’s NTC are mostly professionals who have excelled in their chosen profession — they are typically not professors. This puts the students and the instructors on a somewhat equal playing field, with people in the profession being taught by others in the field who have significant experience.
Steven Schmader, president and CEO of the International Festivals and Events Association, was at Oglebay last week for the Event Management School. “The students (professionals) and instructors are here at Oglebay all week. They can easily talk over a beer in Glassworks after hours and build a relationship. Nobody puts themselves above others,” explained Schmader.
His relationship with Oglebay’s NTC began in 2010 and has been going strong ever since. One thing the NTC does for Schmader’s organization is help to evaluate the teaching offered at these courses through surveys. When Schmader partnered with the NTC, he received help from the training center with scoring tests and with assessing the efficiency of their teachers. All of this makes Oglebay an easy choice for any organization looking for help facilitating their training.
Schmader claims that another secret ingredient that makes Oglebay such a valuable destination is the social networking that takes place at the park. Taking a class at the NTC gives one the chance to spend time with his/her professional peers away from the office where, in a resort setting, the students and instructors are basically living with each other.
“It’s hard to miss each other in the bar or restaurant, and all of their free time is spent together. Oglebay provides social activities for us, too. The Festival of Lights [is] still running for us. They keep their shops open.”
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The Event Management School is a two-year program, so those who come the first year for a class get to come back again for the second year. Schmader said the students look forward to it so much that, when year two is over, they are asking, “When is year three?”
Schmader jokingly compared Oglebay to a “cruise ship” when it came to meals, saying Oglebay has a reputation among students for its great food And it’s not uncommon for more than 20 students at a time to visit Ye Olde Alpha during their stay in Wheeling, making the most of their time in the area.
One unique organization that holds its training at the NTC is the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA). In the fall of 1971, the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums became an independent association from the National Recreation and Park Association, and they actually housed their executive office in Wheeling until the mid-1990s. So Oglebay was a natural choice when the AZA decided it needed to offer professional training to the membership. Oglebay has gone from hosting one AZA school each year to having at least a half a dozen courses open for any zoo or aquarium professionals who are looking for training opportunities and conferences that can help them in their career.
Hargleroad said that Oglebay is one of the only places where elephant caretakers are trained. “The care of elephants is taken very seriously, and they have a prescribed training program for all elephant keepers. It’s pretty much a mandate that if you’re a full-time elephant keeper that, within three years or so of being a keeper, you have to attend elephant management school, which is currently only offered at Oglebay,” Hargleroad said. The result is elephant keepers all over the U.S. are familiar with Oglebay because they get to spend time there at some point in their career.
Not all who attend courses at Oglebay’s NTC are out-of-towners. Managers and directors from Grand Vue Park and WesBanco Arena have taken advantage of the NTC being in their hometown, and newly appointed Wheeling Parks and Recreation Director Jesse Mestrovic is no stranger to what Oglebay has to offer. He has attended the State Park Leadership School and National Recreation and Park Association Directors School.
“I have greatly enjoyed all of the classes I have taken at Oglebay’s NTC. These courses are intensely focused on the profession and the courses at hand. I love how the professors at Oglebay’s schools are practitioners in the field and teach from practical, real-life experiences,” Mestrovic said.
He agrees that the networking that takes place at the schools with colleagues from across the country or world is “priceless.” Mestrovic believes the courses will help him in his new role.
“One thing that has always stuck with me with this profession is that no matter the size of the agency or department, we all have the same problems and issues. With that said, the dialogue between us is extremely valuable. We all learn other people’s successes or mistakes, and that makes us better park and recreation professionals.”
Mestrovic considers himself lucky to have Oglebay and the NTC, and as a member of the Young Professional Network with the National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA), he gets to connect with colleagues he meets at national conferences.
“Generally speaking, parks and recreation professionals are typically aware of the schools in Oglebay or have been to Oglebay in the past. My locality and profession in Wheeling have become a great icebreaker with colleagues, and [I] encourage them to come early or stay late on their travels in Wheeling and the Upper Ohio Valley. It always feels special when NRPA colleagues reach out to me and let me know that they are in town to catch up.”
Mestrovic urges anyone who is interested in the field of parks and recreation to check out the schools offered at the NTC and learn from some of the best in the business. “Regardless of your profession, continue to educate yourself and expand your mind through continued education.”
Oglebay continues to expand the minds of professionals seeking more knowledge in their chosen fields by offering the NTC as a host site. Who knew Oglebay was so much more than just a favorite local park and resort? The NTC expands Oglebay’s reputation to include it as also being the favorite learning place of so many professionals from all over the world, hoping to better themselves in their careers.
• Kelly Strautmann lives out in the country of Cameron, W.Va., and proofreads in the city of Wheeling. She has a supportive and talented husband and two ridiculous daughters who keep her busy and full of love.
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