PORT CLINTON - Alison Falls dreams of the day when a boardwalk snakes along a sandy strand of shoreline on the North Coast in Port Clinton.
She envisions a protected and preserved place where frothy waves lap at the beach, parents push strollers, kids pedal bikes, and tourists bird-watch as slivers of pink streak across a summer sunrise.
A board member of the Trust for Public Land's Ohio office, the Port Clinton resident was the first to meet with officials to explore the city's interest in purchasing and preserving a six-acre portion of beachfront along East Perry Street.
That was nearly four years ago. This week, a red ribbon will be snipped, marking the end of a hard-fought phase of the Port Clinton Lakefront Preserve project and signifying the start of a multiyear effort to restore the prime piece of property for public use.
Dozens of local, state, and federal officials, as well as area residents and representatives from nonprofit groups, are expected to attend an 11:30 a.m. Wednesday ceremony at Derby Pond to celebrate the city's acquisition of properties that make up the new preserve, featuring wetlands, coastal marsh, and near-shore beach environments along Lake Erie.
Described as a natural gem, the preserve has a boatload of benefits: It permanently provides public access to 1,250 feet of shoreline, allows for restoration of lakeside wetlands, protects the shoreline scenery, and links the land with other city-owned property. And it is expected to draw waves of tourists as well as local residents.
Although Ms. Falls said she is "terrifically excited" about the preserve project, Port Clinton officials are almost giddy.
Linda Hartlaub, a City Council member for 14 years, repeats with undisguised enthusiasm: "I'm thrilled. I'm thrilled."
And to think, she said, it all started with a cup of coffee. Years ago, when Ms. Hartlaub and Christine Galvin of the United Way in Ottawa County were having coffee, a casual question was asked: What would most satisfy the council member after all her years of public service?
Without hesitation, Ms. Hartlaub answered: "If we owned that land."
Ms. Galvin contacted Ms. Falls, who then went to city officials in 2006, and "now we have protected that land forever," Ms. Hartlaub said.
Acquiring the properties seemed like a natural fit for the city, considering that the site sits shoulder to shoulder with public land, Ms. Falls said. And she saw an opportunity for the city to own a significant slice of land that would provide public access to the lake and serve as an economic development tool.
Ms. Falls said she knew the purchase would be complicated and figured that because of the Trust for Public Land's experience and expertise on a national level, "if anyone could do this, they could."
Some 25 parcels were purchased for about $1.4 million; the deal was finalized in recent days. A grant from the Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program provided about half of the funding with the balance from the Clean Ohio Green Space Conservation Program.
It was a long process but a worthwhile one, said Bill Carroll, Ohio state director for the Trust for Public Land, who plans to attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony. "We are really grateful to the citizens and the city's leadership in wanting to get this done."
The Trust for Public Land is a national, nonprofit organization that conserves land as parks, community gardens, historic sites, rural lands, and other natural places, ensuring livable communities for future generations.
The preserve, Mr. Carroll said, "protects the character of the Port Clinton waterfront."
Ms. Falls agreed, adding that it will be a natural enhancement for tourism. Few places in the state offer such an extensive stretch of public access along the lakefront, she said.
The preserve, said Port Clinton Mayor Debbie Hymore-Tester, "should be our showcase along Perry Street." City officials already plan to seek grant funds to cover costs for the next phase, including engineering work on the boardwalk.
At the top of the must-do list: Attack roots and shoots in reed beds on the six-acre site. An invasive perennial grass known as Phragmites australis has established itself on the shoreline. Looking like a giant cluster of dirty feather dusters, the wall of weeds chokes off natural habitat and shuts off the lake view.
"It's overrun with Phragmites," Ms. Hymore-Tester said, noting that getting rid of the unwanted reeds and reintroducing native plants could take a couple of years.
The mayor is looking into forming a board of review for the preserve, and she said public input will be sought as plans develop.
Restoration of the coastal land would connect nicely with development of the city's adjacent 14 acres. "We want a marina, a convention center, a hotel, retail shops, restaurants," the mayor said. "We are open for mixed-use development there."
And city officials will make sure to keep the waterfront open even when development occurs on that 14-acre parcel, Ms. Hartlaub said. No development - not a playground, not a bathhouse - will take place at the preserve, officials said.
Kevin Joyce, executive director of Black Swamp Conservancy, said use of the property will be limited to recreation, such as fishing, hiking, and bird-watching. The conservancy holds a conservation easement over the preserve, requiring that the land be maintained as a nature preserve forever.
The site is "extremely important" because of its location on the shoreline of Lake Erie and because it is now available for access by the public, he said. "There are very few coastline properties that become available for public access. This is one of those properties."
Many city residents have warm, and cold, memories of the exact spot where the preserve has been created.
"We'd come down here and watch the ducks. There were cattails here, and turtles and carp were swimming about. We would ice skate here in the winter," said Ms. Hartlaub, recalling days from her childhood some 40 years ago. The property wasn't public then, but owners didn't shoo away local kids who explored the shoreline.
Ice skating won't return to the scene, but city officials hope to produce a place where, once again, frogs hopscotch lily pads and turtles bask in the sun.
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