Can Puller pull it together for P.C.?

Hotly-contested waterpark resort project for waterfront is just what Port Clinton needs, officials insist PORT CLINTON
JACOB LAMMERS
May 24, 2010

Hotly-contested waterpark resort project for waterfront is just what Port Clinton needs, officials insist

PORT CLINTON

Fishermen take in the cool Lake Erie breeze while hoping to get a nibble off the Jefferson Street Pier.

Shoppers walk along downtown Port Clinton looking for deals among scattered storefronts.

For better or worse, a marina district project could change the landscape of downtown Port Clinton.

Puller Group, an Indianapolis-based developer, plans to build a waterpark, convention center and hotel at Water Works Park.

"We proposed that because the waterpark will bring people to the area. The hotel naturally is for the convention center and waterpark. The whole project is a combination. You need all the parts to make it work," said CEO and President Ken Puller Sr. "It'll bring business into Port Clinton and bring enough business for us to survive."

"What we found is that mixed use of that land (Water Works Park) is more valuable than a marina alone," said Port Clinton Mayor Tom Brown. "We now have another piece to go with that and that is the waterpark, convention center and hotel. It's more bang for your buck. If we want to draw people to Port Clinton as a destination, we need a diversification of businesses."

According to a report published by Fifth Third Securities Exchange, a Cleveland investment banking group specializing in economic development, Puller Group's project would cost about $99 million and create at least 350 permanent jobs.

The project could generate $7 million from Tax Increment Financing, which means any improvements to Water Works Park would generate taxable income for the city. The city would get 11 percent of $7 million, which works out to $800,000 a year.

Since Port Clinton Council chose Puller Group as the developer in January, the decision has been met with resistance from some city residents.

Last month, council approved a zoning change to allow development at Water Works Park and began negotiations with Puller Group last week. Citizens Organized for Responsible Development, a local grassroots organization, is circulating a petition to place the zoning change on the November ballot.

If the group is successful, the council would have to stop its negotiations with Puller Group.

Fifth Third report

In May, council reviewed the Fifth Third report, which evaluated the proposals by Puller Group and Stonehenge, a developer from Gahanna, Ohio. In the report, Chris Johnson, vice president of Fifth Third Securities Exchange, discussed the weaknesses and strengths of each developer.

"While both of the developer's proposals have merit, our review is that the Stonehenge proposal works best for the long-term goals, as we understand them in the city of Port Clinton," Johnson said in the report.

"I think the Fifth Third report somewhat disappointed me," Brown said. "We didn't ask them to choose a developer."

"Every time we get experts to give us an opinion, we totally disregard it," said Councilman Jeff Morgan, who voted for Stonehenge. "If you look at what the Fifth Third report did, they did exactly what we wanted."

Morgan said the Puller Group project did not match the city's Request for Proposals, which were sent out to 176 companies in July 2006.

According to the report, the city would be better suited for a "long-term approach to the overall well-being of the community's tax base."

Puller Group plans to complete the project -- planning and construction -- within 18-24 months while Stonehenge had plans for 315 condominiums, built over a 10-year period, Morgan said.

"Why would you choose a short-term fix? It's like putting a tourniquet on the wound and then going to the hospital," Morgan said. "Stonehenge is like the hospital. It fixes it completely."

Declining population, economy

While a long-term solution fits with the needs for Port Clinton, the city might not have the luxury of time.

Stan Odesky Associates, of Toledo, conducted a survey of the population in 2005 and determined the city is aging and does not have enough young people to balance it out.

Citizens aged 55 and older make up about 58 percent of the population while citizens 18-35 years old consist of about 5 percent of the population.

When citizens reach retirement age, the city takes a hit since retirement income is not taxable, said Councilman John Folger, who voted for Puller Group.

"We've only got a tiny percent of young people getting started in the business world," Folger said. "The city's revenue for income tax is decreasing dramatically. We're not growing. We're shrinking."

"Port Clinton is losing people, and they don't have the taxes for an up keep. There is no economy to speak of in Port Clinton," Puller said. "They need a shot in the arm, and this is the shot. I would like to see the downtown vibrant throughout the day and weekend. I want to keep people here in Port Clinton and rejuvenate the whole downtown area."