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Published: Wednesday, 7/19/2006

Huron buys site to add lake access

BY JIM SIELICKI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

HURON, Ohio - Boating access to Lake Erie will open up with the purchase of a grain-handling facility and the 19.8-acre peninsula it sits on as part of Huron's ambitious plan to continue its riverfront development.

The $3.25 million purchase, lauded yesterday by Gov. Bob Taft and a bevy of state and local officials, is expected to turn the former ConAgra Foods Inc. site near the mouth of the Huron River into a boat ramp that will provide additional access to popular Lake Erie fishing grounds.

"From this vantage point, we have a great opportunity to see a picture-postcard view of the Huron River waterfront," said Sam Speck, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

The department's Division of Wildlife purchased the property for Huron. The city applied for a $3.14 million grant from ODNR to build the ramps and docks.

ConAgra of Omaha is winding down its operations on the east bank of the river, across the river from the Huron Boat Basin and amphitheater, where the purchase was announced.

Gov. Bob Taft, left, joins Steve Gray, center, and Sam Speck of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources along the Huron River. The state helped Huron acquire the site. Gov. Bob Taft, left, joins Steve Gray, center, and Sam Speck of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources along the Huron River. The state helped Huron acquire the site.
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Governor Taft, Huron Mayor Terry Graham, and Mr. Speck signed a memorandum of understanding outlining details of the project, which will involve commercial development that will be guided by the city.

The state will take possession of the south half of the property facing the river, while the city will own the northern portion that contains the grain operations buildings.

The purchase was completed on Monday. According to the Erie County Auditor's Office, the property yielded $57,342.80 in property taxes for 2006, a jump from the previous year, when ConAgra paid $43,385.25.

ConAgra did not return a call seeking comment about its cessation of operations.

Mayor Graham, who called the site a "coastal asset," said the state's purchase will lead to a significant spinoff that will add value to the city's waterfront.

"This is a very special opportunity for the community," he said, adding that city leaders have wanted to develop the land across from its boat basin since the 1980s.

A study by Ohio State University provided a blueprint for the area's economic development and planning challenges, Mr. Graham said, and buying the ConAgra site fit into that mission, he said.

ConAgra had placed the land for sale two years ago. The city lacked the funds to acquire it, the mayor said, leading Huron officials to approach the state for a partnership.

Steve Gray, chief of the Division of Wildlife, said the property was purchased from income generated from the sale of fishing licenses ($16 million annually), excise taxes on fishing tackle sold in Ohio ($6 million annually), and taxes from marine fuel sales ($2.5 million annually).

Mr. Gray said the boat launch, which will have four ramps and the docks, will fill a void in public access between Sandusky and Vermilion. The facilities will be available at no cost.

The boat ramps are expected to take two years to complete. A channel leading to the lake runs past a lime kiln and an ore dock for lake freighters.

The city plans to develop part of the site to include restaurants, stores, condominiums, and green space.

Andy White, Huron's city manager, said the company has 27 grain elevators, a warehouse, train shed, and storage dome. Some of those structures could be used as part of the city's redevelopment, he said.

Nine ConAgra employees remain at the site, he said.

Nothing will be done to the structures until a market analysis is completed, he said.

"It's a very unique opportunity," Mr. White said.

Following his appearance in Huron, the governor planned to visit SSOE Inc., a Toledo architectural and engineering firm, to highlight his Third Frontier internship program, which places Ohio college students with science and technology firms in the state.

Contact Jim Sielicki at:

jsielicki@theblade.com

or 419-724-6078.



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