Emily C. Roush
The Ashland Beacon
In 2017, Russell resident Marty Conley found himself at a crossroads. After 10 years of working at AK Steel, the plant closed, and he was laid off. One option was to move elsewhere to find work, but he was determined to find a way to stay. He recalled, “we could have moved very easily. My daughters were in high school, and my wife is a teacher. We could have moved to Michigan, but this is home.” Conley had been working in manufacturing and industry for almost three decades. The prospect of changing direction was daunting and something he described as a “pivotal point.” He explained, “I had worked in manufacturing type work for 27 years. That’s what I knew, but I wanted to try something new. Was it a scary decision to make? Absolutely.” Instead of immediately seeking a full-time job, Conley chose to go back to college. “I didn’t work for two years. I just buckled down and went back to school. [It was the] scariest thing I have ever done in my life. I relied on my family and had great support.”
While completing a bachelor’s degree in applied management from Ohio University Southern, an internship at the Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce in South Point led to a new career path as the Director of the Lawrence County Convention and Visitors Bureau (www.visitlawrenceohio.com). “I was [at the Chamber of Commerce] and got to know the staff. They did not have that position full and asked me to apply. I kind of thought, ‘this is what I want, but am I ready?’” At this point, Conley had already honed one skillset that would serve him well in the position: photography.
Over that last several years, Conley has become known as a prolific photographer across the region documenting sporting events, festivals, and concerts. It all started 17 years ago when he coached his now adult sons’ little league baseball team. He used some of the photos he had taken of them to create personalized posters for their bedroom. During one of the games, he noticed his wife, Amber, showing the posters to other parents. “I blame this all on her,” Conley joked. He continued, “by the end of the season I had made several posters. [Amber] told me, ‘you really need to do this.’”
The pair ran a studio in Flatwoods for several years, but live action has always been Conley’s favorite style of photography. He jumped at the chance to photograph events. “I just pounded the pavement. Sports was something that I knew, and then I got into music. Music was something that I loved. I tried to build a strong portfolio and network.” When he first began photography work, he set two goals that at the time felt out of reach. “I wanted to shoot a Kentucky basketball game and a KISS concert just to say that I’d done it. I thought, ‘I’m not going to be able to do that. I’m just learning.’ Six years later, I had already done both. Anything else is just a bonus,” he said with a smile. Conley’s sports photography has included everything from little league to collegiate and professional teams, and he has been featured in numerous publications including The Greater Ashland Beacon. He has covered events like Summer Motion and is currently the venue photographer for Mountain Health Arena in Huntington and the Charleston Coliseum and Convention Center. “I have been really fortunate over the years. [Photography] has led me to doing some cool things at the University of Kentucky, Marshall University, and the Cincinnati Reds. I have gotten to see my sports heroes. I love all genres of music. To see some of those artists, get to meet them, and still have contact with them has been amazing. How cool is that?”
Through photographing sporting events, concerts, and festivals, Conley has seen firsthand their economic impact and how they can draw tourists to the region. It has also helped him build a network of colleagues in the industry. “My media list and contacts are folks that I have probably worked with or know through [photography]. I am a people person and love working with the public.” Conley’s collaborative nature drives his work at the Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Tourism is huge for the local economy. The great thing about me working here is it that this is also our Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development office. With all three of us, it’s amazing because I will tap into those assets too. When a new business comes, they will ask me ‘what is there for our employees to do?’ We all work together.”
Since becoming the Convention and Visitors Bureau Director in 2019, Conley has spearheaded several notable programs that have ripple effects beyond Lawrence County. One of his first undertakings was a passion project that had an unexpected tie to Russell. “I came across the fact that 2019 was the 100th anniversary of the Ironton Tanks [football team]. I’m a sports guy. What I found interesting was the history and grassroots efforts of how [the team came to be]. I followed the history from Ironton to Portsmouth and then to the present-day Detroit Lions. There was a constant in between all those teams, Mr. Glenn Presnell. He played for all three, and he gave the Detroit Lions the colors they wear today. Every year the Lions play in a Thanksgiving game. That started in Ironton as well. These little tidbits in history are fascinating. Another thing that linked me to the history is that Mr. Presnell coached Russell High School football in 1928 and ’29. Digging up that kind of stuff has been great.”
Conley contacted the Detroit Lions to see if they would participate in a commemoration of the Ironton Tanks centennial. “I go big from the get-go,” he laughed. When they did not immediately respond, he reached out to the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, OH. They had an Ironton Tanks jersey in their collections that they agreed to loan for an event. Eventually, the Lions called Conley; he was so surprised to see “Detroit Lions” on the caller ID that he took a photo of it. They were receptive to the event and sent one of their players to Ironton to speak at a special luncheon with local football coaches and players in attendance. Later that evening there was an additional recognition of the Tanks at the Ironton High School football game.
The Convention and Visitors Bureau recently announced the inclusion of Lawrence County in the Recreation Economy for Rural Communities (RERC) program. This special initiative from the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Forestry Service helps small towns and counties across the country identify strategies to grow their outdoor recreation and tourism economies. Conley explained, “recreation is huge nationwide right now, and we really need to expand on that. Recreation tourism was almost like low-hanging fruit for us because we have the only national forest in Ohio right here. Wayne National Forest takes up almost two-thirds of Lawrence County.”
Conley started the application for RERC last year. Only 10 communities across the country would be chosen, but he thought it was still worth a shot. After an initial rejection, Conley received a call from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). They had seen Lawrence County’s application and wanted to help. ARC’s involvement led the RERC program to expand to 25 communities. Lawrence County was one of 12 chosen from the Appalachian region. Conley is thrilled to work with a steering committee next year on programs to build recreation tourism both in Wayne National Forrest and the rest of the county. “The forest is nice, and so is the Ohio River. The river is an untapped resource that we have in our broader area. I am going for opportunities that we can do along the river. I would love to have opportunities where people with boats could stop here.”
Another untapped resource Conley plans to explore is history tourism. “I love local history, and I think it is something that that can be grown upon.” For six months, he began working on a large collaborative grant application that involved counties from across the Tri-State. “We applied in April of this year for an ARC Power Grant. [This is] a $1.5 million dollar grant for heritage tourism and history. There are nine counties connected here in Ohio along with Boyd and Greenup Counties in Kentucky and Cabell and Wayne Counties in West Virginia. Our plan is to have a historical trail that emphasizes the Underground Railroad. Historical tourism is amazing,” he said.
He continued, “I met some of the folks in Brown County in Ohio. One of their biggest tourism stops is the Rankin House in Ripley. It’s very significant, and people come just to see and tour the house.” The John Rankin House is a historical house museum that was the home to abolitionist John Rankin and was an original stop on the Underground Railroad. Rankin later moved to Ironton and passed away in what is now the Lawrence County Museum. Some of his personal items are now artifacts in the museum’s collections. This inspired Conley. “I was telling the folks at the Rankin House about this [Ironton connection] and thinking ‘why do we not have this taught or known?’” According to Conley, the goal if chosen for the grant is to mark 27 Underground Railroad sites over a three-year period in all the participating counties and states. The Convention and Visitors Bureau is working with historians from Marshall, Shawnee State University, Ohio University, and Ashland Community and Technical College. “We are getting the colleges involved for proper research. We do not want to have anything that is not factual. This is a big project that we are working on,” he emphasized.
Projects like this have furthered Conley’s mission of collaborating and building relationships with organizations across state borders. “When you drive to work in the morning, you see people crossing the bridges and license plates from all three states. We need each other. I will help promote other [counties and states]. I want Lawrence County to flourish but we all need to work together.”
Conley’s ultimate objectives with all his projects both in photography and at the Convention and Visitors Bureau are to highlight the positives in the region to attract tourists as well potential employers, thus helping to build the region’s economy. “There are a lot of moving parts. It’s not going to happen overnight,” he asserted. Conley hopes his contributions create conditions and opportunities for people to build their lives here. “We’ve got hard working folks here. My goal with all of this, going back to school and working [at the Convention and Visitors Burea], is the fact that I don’t want another family faced with the decisions that we had to make. If I can keep one family here from having to move, I have done my job. I know what I went through to make that happen. This is home for me. Will my kids stay here? I don’t know. I would love for them to, but I want to stay. That is very important to me.”