PORT CLINTON — A prime piece of property along Lake Erie and the Portage River could be transformed from a park to a $66-million mixed-use development featuring shops, a lodge and conference center, and residential units.
For years, Port Clinton has wrestled with how or if to develop Water Works Park, a gem prized for its location near downtown and bordering both the river and lake.
The prospect presents a push-and-pull between park enthusiasts, who want to keep the land open and accessible, and developers and city officials, who think building there will prompt tourism, jobs, and more growth.
“We are not delusional. We know we have those people who are not pleased,” said Mayor Vincent Leone, before quickly adding his support for the plan. “We need to move forward, and the time is now.”
He’s leading a group that’s negotiating a development deal with Medina, Ohio-based Washington Properties after council members agreed to move forward with such talks. Many details, such as the construction timeline and the purchase or use of the park property, must be finalized.
The mayor would like to see work begin next spring.
Opponents said a commercial project isn’t the only way to boost economic development in Port Clinton. A “showplace park” would attract both residents and visitors while keeping the waterfront public and completely open, said Rick Noderer, a former councilman and member of Citizens Organized for Responsible Development.
“That’s a city park, and it belongs to all the people,” he said.
Washington Properties proposed a $60 million investment featuring a lodge and conference center, first-floor retail shops, and 119 residential units. The market-rate residences would range from efficiency units to three-bedroom spaces.
The complex likely would be built in phases and use less than two of the park’s nearly 14 acres, said Mike Rose, company president.
The developer seeks $6 million in public support for improvements such as a boardwalk, marina, amphitheater, paths, playground, and utilities. Port Clinton could raise the public portion by seeking grants, offering in-kind contributions and tax incentives, or negotiating the cost of the property, Mayor Leone said.
The entire 13.8-acre park has been appraised at more than $7 million, he said.
Mr. Rose contends the development would enhance the property and make Port Clinton more vital by focusing on fishing, festivals, and special events that stretch the tourist season.
“The park is in very poor condition. You can see there’s weeds growing up,” he said. “We want to maintain that park so it’s more accessible.”
About 60 percent of voters in 2007 approved a zoning change to allow such a development on the park site.
Washington Properties has developed projects in locations including Medina, Orrville, and Wooster, Ohio. The Port Clinton site would be its costliest project to date. Its projects have included new construction as well as adaptive reuse of old buildings, Mr. Rose said.
One of its mixed-use projects in Wooster known as Liberty Street Commons experienced financial trouble during the recent recession. In 2001, the developer was issued a $3.1 million loan guaranteed at 80 percent by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development to finance part of the roughly $3.8 million project.
A judgment was entered in Medina County Common Pleas Court in 2009 against Mr. Rose and Washington Properties. Mr. Rose said the project was eventually sold and both he and the USDA took a loss.
The USDA’s ties to the project ended in July, 2011. It would only release financial details to The Blade through a Freedom of Information Act request, which is pending.
“This was the first time that I’ve ever had a challenge where I wasn’t able to complete the obligation,” said Mr. Rose, who blamed the difficulties on the recession.
Mayor Leone said he was aware of the problem encountered by that project, which he said “raises an eyebrow for everyone.” The incident is one reason why the city needs to make sure its interests are protected during negotiations.
City officials so far “are more than impressed” by Washington Properties, he said.
After community input emphasized the desire to maintain green space, an initial plan was scaled back to include fewer buildings, Mayor Leone said. Any agreement will include language to guarantee public waterfront access, he said.
Those who oppose commercial building at the waterfront have been watching the tug of war over the park for two decades, said Don Finke, who lives several blocks away.
Citizens Organized for Responsible Development advocates a “balanced approach” to development that emphasizes other industries in addition to tourism, he said.
Critics also dispute an economic impact study led by FirstEnergy in partnership with the Ottawa County Improvement Corporation. The study, done at the request of the city, estimated the project would create about 585 new jobs in addition to construction jobs.
Mr. Noderer dismissed the job figures as “generally pie-in-the sky” numbers, while Mr. Finke contends most would be lower-paying service industry positions.
“Look, when you’ve got a piece of property sitting on a river and a lake as prime as that is, you are going to have people looking at it and surmising about development. But the question is, is the community better off keeping it a top-notch park ... and put that development elsewhere in the community,” Mr. Finke said.