SANDUSKY - Dan Delahunt admits he's not a professional developer, so it was more of a gut feeling that led him to buy and renovate a downtown building into nine condominiums and three retail spaces.
"With all the water parks going in around here, this is going to go from being a seasonal destination to a year-round one," said the owner of HMS Home Warranty in this Erie County city. "I think Sandusky is an undiscovered gem."
Evidence is mounting that this community along the shores of Lake Erie, 55 miles east of Toledo, won't remain undiscovered much longer.
After years of being content to be the home of the Cedar Point Amusement Park and factories catering to the paper and cardboard manufacturing industries, Sandusky leaders have started to capitalize on the city's setting on the lake to attract entertainment and residential projects.
"We're hopeful that the housing that's being put in the downtown area is going to spur on other kinds of development," said Kelly Kresser, a spokesman for the city of Sandusky.
The Bayfront Corridor Committee, which advises the city commission on waterfront development, heard proposals in late 2002 to develop a stretch along the waterfront that had once housed a number of factories.
Out of those meetings came the deal with Mid-States Development Corp. to renovate the former home of the Chesapeake Display & Packaging Co. into nearly 200 upper-end condominiums.
In addition to the Chesapeake project and Mr. Delahunt's Hubbard Building project, advertising firm owner Jeff Krabill is in the process of getting signed contracts for units in his LakeView Condominiums. He is putting the finishing touches on 11 units in a three-story building just a couple of blocks from the other projects.
Developers and real estate agents estimate that half the new tenants will be move-up residents from the area and the other half will be second-home owners from Midwest cities such as Chicago and Columbus.
Those projects on the city's downtown waterfront aren't the only new residences in Sandusky and surrounding townships.
So far this year, 90 residential units have been recorded in the area, according to the Firelands Association of Realtors, double the number last year. The figures include houses and condominiums.
County Auditor Jude Hammond said the residential growth is driven, in part, by better awareness of the area as a vacation destination, especially with the opening in recent years of at least three water parks. The attractions draw visitors from Ohio as well as Michigan, Illinois, and Pennsylvania, he said.
"There are now more travelers going into Erie County and they are becoming more aware of opportunities here," he said.
The added residences are noteworthy in part because neither Sandusky nor Erie County is growing. The latest population estimate for the city is 27,030, down 800 from the 2000 Census count, and for the county it is 79,000, down 500 from the 2000 Census.
City leaders hope the new dwellings will mean more people in the area in the summer months.
Although upscale condominium projects have been built in recent years in nearby communities such as Port Clinton, Catawaba Island, and Huron, Sandusky's civic and business leaders are just recognizing that shuttered factories don't have to stay closed until another plant can be lured there, said Mr. Krabill, owner of Krabill Marketing Group.
"I think it's been something of an evolutionary process," he said. "It's dawning on people that our natural destiny is for residential and more destination-type use."
S. Robert Davis, the Columbus-area developer behind the Chesapeake Lofts at the Paper District, said he was attracted to the building because it is on Sandusky Bay, not just on the lake.
"The bay is a very attractive place to be because you get more good water days [for boating] than in other areas," said Mr. Davis, president of Mid-States Development in Dublin, Ohio.
Workers have just started to clean up the hulking building, but all 191 planned units are either sold or reserved at prices ranging from $140,000 to $280,000, Mr. Davis said.
The project offers 20 floor plans and views of the bay.
It is the first phase of a redevelopment for a 40-acre area that could cost at least $70 million, including public money.
Next are a shopping area, marina, and restaurants, on which construction is to start in about six months. After that, plans call for an outdoor amphitheater, a water park, and a hotel.
Mr. Davis also plans a condo project in a 10-story building to be erected about a mile from the Chesapeake building. It is to have 100 condos, starting at $300,000 each.
Mr. Delahunt said he did not seek government help to develop the former Hubbard Building so he decided to finish his building before trying to sell the units.
With the first floor to be used by stores, the project is to have three condo units on each floor, with each unit to be 1,200 to 1,600 square feet, he said.
Six of the nine living units have views of the bay. The units are priced $150,000 to $300,000.
"I've designed them for local people because they're larger than the typical loft, but I've had a lot of interest both locally and from out of town," he said.
Mr. Krabill has turned a three-story limestone building, originally built in 1860 as a hotel, into 11 condominiums, one of which will be an office. They range from 1,750 to 2,750 square feet, some with balconies, and are to sell for $355,000 to $555,000.
Indoor and outdoor water parks in the area, the number of which could spurt as high as 10, will draw even bigger vacation crowds than the nearby marinas and Lake Erie islands already do, he said.
The interest in the downtown condominium projects does not surprise Jeffrey Berquist, the broker/owner of Prudential Stadtmiller Realty in Sandusky.
"Anytime you can move 200 to 300 people with the demographics they're looking at, it should have a very positive impact on downtown Sandusky," he said.
Other housing also has sprung up. The developer of the upscale Hidden Harbour Lagoons development on Lake Erie near Cedar Point said all but one of the 55 planned houses there have been built, selling for $500,000 to $3 million each.
"We saw a real demand for upscale housing in our area," said Ms. Lynch, of Hoty Enterprises Inc. in Sandusky.
As a result, the developer is building the Angel's Path subdivision behind the Sandusky Mall in Perkins Township, which is not on Lake Erie. It is attracting move-up buyers and executive transferees, said Ms. Lynch. Homes there cost about $500,000 and half of the original 47 lots have been sold.
"The last three homes we've sold in there have been to buyers from out of state, which is a good sign," she said.
Contact Mary-Beth McLaughlin at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6199.38.56411 -121.7337