By RORY ALLEN
Former Sandusky resident living in Perris, Calif.
What should downtown Sandusky be? A vibrant downtown should be a community center and a vacation destination with enough attractions and amenities to sustain both. Contrary to what many online commenters opine, downtown Sandusky is not a desert. If you drive down Water Street, you will see continuing restoration of historic buildings, permanent occupancy in above street condos, and slow, steady growth. There are also inhabited apartments along Market St. and businesses continue to exist. But what is the next step, what can spur true revitalization?
n First of all, finish the Paper District. It is essential to beginning the downtown renaissance. The new marina and shops will bring tourists and be the anchor for further revitalization.
n Bring in national retailers. Bribe them to come. Start with Starbucks, the stamp that downtown is arriving. Once we have one or two incentive-laden national merchants established, they will provide the foundation for local entrepreneurs to confidently build off of.
n Bring in a unique all-season attraction. A Dave and Buster's, or something similar, would be a great start: an indoor family/adult place to eat, drink and play. The parking lot at Jackson and Market could be a location. Once that is established, develop other attractions: bowling, theaters, bookstores, etc.
n Build hotels. Once the attractions become established, vacationers will need a place to stay. The uniqueness of buildings like the Rieger will be an attraction of themselves. Instead of making it into condos, make it the hotel it once was, or a combination condo/hotel: condos on top, hotel on the lower floors. The condo owners will have the opportunity for maid service and can take advantage of the main floor coffee/restaurant amenities. There are other buildings downtown that can be converted into hotels catering to specific clientele: the party crowd, families, and romantic couples. The right mix of condos, apartments, and hotels will bring a year-round population to the downtown which will keep businesses viable.
n Develop an Education Center. Put together a consortium of local and national colleges and technical universities to renovate an existing structure that will accommodate the group, as satellites, under one roof. This will provide another supply of consumers to the downtown, offer complementary retail growth, and provide a service to the city's youth.
n Either restore, or level and rebuild the Keller as a nest of specialty/food/souvenir shops. Its location near the Paper District and the Jackson Street Pier makes it an ideal location for a niche, upscale, vertical shopping complex. Examples of possible tenants include local wine and cheese, a coffee/pastry shop, high-end fishing and tackle shop, and souvenir shops catering to the boat-in and island tour crowd.
n Bring ice skating back to the Bay. Skating in the Basin used to be a social event that tied the various neighborhood kids together and was uniquely Sandusky. Use one of the three slips downtown (the CP dock, or the two adjacent to the Jackson Street Pier) for public ice skating. Set up another one up as a hockey rink and start a city league. Have burner barrels, hot chocolate stands, hot soup tents, music, etc. It could be a great place to set up a Christmas mart. Promote ice fishing as a destination sport. Have a tournament. Sponsor ice boat races.
n Force building owners to fix up their facades. As the downtown gains momentum, there will be incentive to re-evaluate the remaining buildings as to their viability. Until then, at least provide a decent exterior.
n Start the CP ferry again. Once people come and stay downtown, using the ferry will again become a financially self-sustaining means of transportation to the Point, and another incentive for staying downtown while on vacation.
Of course all this must be paid for. Hire a team of professional grant writers, on contract, to find every available dollar dedicated to urban renewal, historic preservation, green-use, inner-city education, etc. If they are competent, the money they uncover will easily offset their salaries.
Many examples exist of reclaimed urban areas. The Flats in Cleveland, Cannery Row in Monterey, the Gaslamp District in San Diego, are a few. While they are larger cities, the same premise exists: reinvigorating a once prosperous urban area located in a unique setting.
All of this will not happen overnight, but continuous, steady growth under an established plan is a valuable legacy to our children, and to the city's future.