Kelleys Island gears up for new season

KELLEYS ISLAND Following a schedule as predictable as the migratory patterns of its native wildlife,
Annie Zelm
May 24, 2010

KELLEYS ISLAND

Following a schedule as predictable as the migratory patterns of its native wildlife, the businesses of this quiet Lake Erie island are once again awakening from hibernation.

During the winter, fewer than 150 people call the island their home, but the influx of seasonal residents will soon push its population to about 1,500. Add to that several thousands of visitors each day and the island comes alive with activity, said Chamber of Commerce director Marvin Robinson.

"It's a nice sight -- it's good to see all your friends come back," said Scott Stevenson, a full-time island resident and one of four owners of the newly-opened Lake Erie Coffee Co. "Everybody's a friend up here -- it's a small, close-knit community."

Officer Marianne Wegener of the Kelleys Island Police Department said calls for service also increase dramatically after Memorial Day, when the department transitions from a two-person alternating staff to 14 full-time officers.

"I can be here for five days and not see anybody (during the off-season)," said Wegener as she sat in the small stone building that contains two temporary jail cells. "During the summer, there's a lot more traffic, a lot more kids and a lot more drunk people."

Like the glacial grooves and native wildlife, the shops and restaurants of Kelleys Island are little-known treasures. A few owners opened in mid-April, while most others are in the process of training employees, stocking up on merchandise and doing some spring cleaning.

Village Pump owner Gary Finger said he opens in March, earlier than most, to accommodate the island's year-round residents as well as those who move back during the spring.

The bar and restaurant overlooking the docks serves as a social gathering place for neighbors who may have seen each other only sporadically through the long winter. Having a jump start on opening also gives Finger and his employees a chance to concentrate on infrastructure improvements, such as plumbing, heating and stocking their coolers after charter planes bring the first shipments of fresh food in February.

"This winter not everybody on the island was stocked up on food like they needed to be, and you never know when the ferry's gonna run," he said. "A good meal is a good incentive to get out of the house."

Jason Smith, who is opening a new art gallery this year, called the Island Time Gallery, recalls fond memories of spending his summers on the island as a child and moved there full-time in 1998.

He works full-time at the Village Pump and started the gallery to showcase Ohio artists whose subjects are primarily related to boating, fishing or the Lake Erie islands.

The photograph collections he offers remind him of what he loves most about living there -- the rich history and serene setting.

"I can spend my mornings on a golf cart, driving around the lakeshore, and that's worth a thousand bucks," he said. "The tourists are also part of the fun -- we couldn't live here if we didn't have 'em."

Cindy Herndon, whose husband, Charles, is nationally recognized for his massive sculptures made of island rocks, spent her first winter on the island this year watching for wildlife and catching up on her reading.

Still, she and Charles said they were thankful when they saw the first ferry coming in with vehicles they didn't recognize.

"You get to see people in a way you wouldn't in the city -- you see the interconnections," Charles said as he put down his iPod and took a break from swooping small, chaotic strokes of primary colored paint across his canvas. "You also see the first pieces of litter."

Don Alexander, who owns the Kelleys Cove gift shop with his wife, Sandy, said the most difficult aspect of running a seasonal business is waiting for freight, which can be unpredictable.

"We get virtually no deliveries to our store -- we have to pick it up at the airport or the ferry line," he said.

Owners must also rely on the peak period from mid-June to mid-August to earn most of their revenue for the entire year.

"You think it's all summer (that we're busy), but it's really only 10 weeks," Alexander said. "But the bills run 12 months -- so you have to be really smart for those 10 weeks."