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LEADS FORUM: Work together for workable waterfront

Commentary • Apr 14, 2010 at 1:57 AM


Sandusky-area teacher

Member, Leadership Erie County Class of 2010

If you build it, they will come

The problem is that nothing is being built, while old condemned buildings are allowed to decay. Is this what we want the future to look like -- a broken Rust Belt town that's seen better days?

Economic development in north central Ohio is based on our greatest natural resource -- Lake Erie. There's no denying that that we have a complicated relationship with our lake. It brings out the best of us and also the intolerant and sometimes adolescent side. It's our largest draw along with Cedar Point. And yet it's hard to say that we've done our best to sustainably utilize this resource. Many would love to see progress and many would like to see preservation. The reasonable but overlooked query then becomes: Why can't we have both?

The way forward always starts with a clear vision.

It seems as thought it has been a while since we've had a clear vision. Our city leaders become bogged down by mundane Monday night bickering with the public over seemingly much less important issues. And after observing the regular treatment they receive for serving the public, it's easy to see why some of our best and brightest aren't interested anymore. They're doing our work; let's talk to them with respect and treat them like our fellow citizens should expect to be treated.

Most reasonable people can agree we need public access, but that's just one thing on a large list of things we need. Those same reasonable souls can probably agree some kind of development on our waterfront could make a huge improvement if done with care. Old dilapidated buildings with roped-off perimeters to protect from falling stones are a clear eyesore, but there are plenty of beautiful structures already in place and easy to see. One needs only to drive straight down Columbus Avenue to see the potential. The architecture is appealing -- the boarded-up windows are not.

Fortunately, we have existing models already in place, and close to home too! Louisville, Ky., might have some great ideas, but it's not the most comparable city. It's roughly 48 times our size and sits on a river. Another look on the Great Lakes region finds Sheboygan, Wis. City leaders in Sheboygan have successfully turned their waterfront into a model of sustainable compromise -- one that started with a clear vision and people willing to work together on a good plan!

Sheboygan turned a 42-acre brownfield site into a mixed-use, public-private waterfront everyone can enjoy. Sheboygan's plan used underutilized land for economically and environmentally sustainable uses. For more than 100 years it had been used for the storage of coal, salt and petroleum. The land now houses a family resort, lakefront eco-park and trails, a riverfront promenade and retail and office space. It took careful planning and an architecturally cohesive design to fit both existing city structures and the desires of the public. They've managed to strike a balance between private economic development and public use and access.

This lofty project received a 2009 award from The Waterfront Center, a nonprofit organization dealing in all things waterfront. Seventeen businesses have opened their doors on the South Pier in Sheboygan and despite an economic downturn after they started, it managed to sustain during the recession. Their ability to work together toward a clear goal has given them a lift in hard times.

There's certainly a way to keep our public access yet make downtown a more appealing destination. Let's put glass in those windows with boards. Let's plant some more trees and see more "green" on the waterfront. Most importantly, let's work on making downtown the type of area that attracts young professionals. Places to shop, things to do and a nice place to live make a great recipe for success. The best part is that we already have a solid foundation to build on.

Sandusky has unlimited potential, but stopping progress at all costs is beneath us and some of the tactics used to stall development in Sandusky have portrayed our city in a negative light. It is time to call for compromise and citizenship. Progress and preservation are not mutually exclusive. If we refuse to acknowledge that, we'll only continue to squeeze the life out of the city we call home. Let's work together and make Sandusky both an economic success and even nicer place to live than it is now.

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