A Voice for the Masses – Lancaster Eagle Gazette

Recently, the Lancaster Eagle Gazette Published a three-part series on the Buckeye Lake Region. The third article explores regional leaders and municipalities are collaborating on the future of the Region and directing change.

See the full article from the Lancaster Eagle Gazette below.

A VOICE FOR THE MASSES

Lancaster Eagle-Gazette | Monday November 8, 2021

Region municipalities unite to lead area into the future

BUCKEYE LAKE

Barrett Lawlis Lancaster Eagle-Gazette | USA TODAY NETWORK

BUCKEYE LAKE — Change is coming. It’s not something that can be stopped completely, but it can be directed.

That’s the message of elected officials in the Buckeye Lake area.

After the Buckeye Lake Dam Project, which began in 2015 and was completed by November 2018, and the coronavirus pandemic seemingly wrangled, the lake is back open for business.

Starting in the early 1900s, Buckeye Lake was a destination for Central Ohio families, utilizing transit systems to take small vacations to the “playground of Ohio.” Since the dam project, the governing bodies and the region’s residents have been working toward sustainable growth.

The challenge in the past has been multiple municipalities around the lake. Being a lake falling in Fairfield, Licking and Perry counties, there hasn’t always been clear communication shared amongst the various groups in those counties. Steps have been taken to remedy that issue.

Creating a vision and following through using the BLRC

In a meeting at the Lakewood High School cafeteria in May 2016, Buckeye Lake area residents gathered to create a vision statement and goals for the area. BLR2036 was the first step toward lining up the towns, villages and even county governments, to have an idea of what the people wanted for the area once the dam project was finished.

The meeting was led by Yaromir Steiner+ Associates. Business owners, residents and anyone curious about the lake’s future worked to create a vision statement, a document signed by people in attendance to pledge to cooperate and work together.

In the vision statement, the signers agree the lake will be “planned, developed, promoted and operated” by the three counties while creating a solid job base for local resi-dents while being the “most popular, year-round tourism destination of the Midwest.” The statement also agrees the lake will remain accessible to residents and visitors.

From this movement, the Buckeye Lake Regional Corp. was born. Mike Fornataro serves as the executive director of the nonprofit organization.

“I liken the signing of the vision statement as our declaration of independence. It’s what the community wants to see, and it’s basically our marching orders. The corporation was formed to act as a united front for any entity in the three counties,” Fornataro said. “We act as consultants, we get governments and landowners connected with developers, we’re here to unify the region.”

He explained that everyone on the lake is a neighbor to each other, and what affects one group could affect everyone. So far, BLRC has been successful in lobbying for direct capital grants and for opening communication between each county.

“We aren’t a development company, we’re dedicated to the improvement of the Buckeye Lake region. We’re 30 minutes from Columbus, we’ve got three exits from a major intersection, so change is coming, we can’t ignore it,” Fornataro said. “It’d be at our peril to do so, so we’re looking for sustainable growth balanced with the community’s vision of the lake.”

Fornataro shared two projects that highlight the BLRC’s efforts to engage with the community and provide developers ideas on growth: the Honey Creek Development in Thorn Township in Perry County, and the Buckeye Lake Park and Pier, a vision for the North Shore Park.

In 2020, BLRC hosted a meeting where four different development teams showed their proposals for housing units on Honey Creek, each with its own idea of canals, access to the lake and environmental impact. Viewers could interact directly, asking questions and looking through the proposals.

Fornataro said those proposals are still on the corporation’s website, and that BLRC had approached the developers on behalf of the Thorn Township Trustees, in order to make sure they created something within the region’s vision. He added it will ultimately be the landowner’s decision, but this is one way to keep things aligned.

“For the park and pier, we wanted to create something that hearkened back to the days of the Buckeye Lake Park. Although we wouldn’t have a roller coaster, we wanted a public space for people to come to the lake and see it and use it,” Fornataro said. “The pier would have areas for food, boat parking, fishing and all kinds of activities. Most of the docks around the lake are private, so we want to create more public use.”

He said if implemented, the design would revitalize the village of Buckeye Lake, and be a jobs creator. The goal is to create a community that people can work in and live in. Fornataro added this property could operate like similar state lodges, a private-public partnership.

There are many challenges around the lake that hinder economic opportunity. The different regulations and building ordinances are one challenge the BLRC is hoping to alleviate, Fornataro said, by creating similar rules throughout the lake’s communities.

“This region is heading in the right directions. We’ve had focus groups to look at what the people want and where we can move forward. The dam project is finished, so the lake isn’t quite in crisis mode anymore, we can see the future,” he said. “We just need to be more strategic.”

Now united, elected officials take steps for the future of the region

With so many different municipal-ities, coordinating around the lake can be difficult. Some areas have stronger influences than others, some are in better positions to invest in projects than others.

Buckeye Lake falls into four townships within the three counties, two in Licking County, and one each for Perry and Fairfield counties. The individual townships, Licking and Union in Licking County; Walnut Township in Fairfield County; and Thorn Township in Perry County, saw growth and loss in the decade, but nothing too unusual.

In the 2020 census data, the population between the four counties grew from 24,509 in 2010 to 25,182 in 2020. The total amount of housing grew by 226 units, from 11,380 in 2010 to 11,606 in 2020, but available housing fell by 219 units, from 2010’s 1,636 available units to 2020’s 1,417.

As an example of influence and who might have more of an advantage, the village of Buckeye Lake’s first elected officials took office in 1980.

For Buckeye Lake Mayor Peggy Wells, the biggest issue she faced was infrastructure. She’s served four years as mayor and eight on the village council. Although she didn’t seek reelection, Wells said she believes she has set up the next administration as well as she can, which includes adding more staff to help coordinate projects.

“For our infrastructure, our biggest challenge is finding funding and doing them in the proper order. We’ve got great community organizations to help us get organized, like the BLRC, Buckeye Lake For Tomorrow and the Buckeye Lake Civic Association,” she said. “The state legislature has been very generous with funding in our area, but we have major concerns that we need to address.”

She said one project that will help the area is an Ohio Department of Transportation project focused on Ohio 79 on the village’s north entrance. The plan is to replace the two bridges there now with one bridge and to improve the intersection at Mill Dam Road. Wells said she hopes the project can create a gateway into the village, and hopefully attract development.

In Thorn Township, Trustee Bob Coleman said the biggest obstacle for the area’s future is funding, like “most government projects.” A new canoe and kayak launch is nearly complete in the township, the first public access to the lake in Perry County.

“Our No. 1 concern is dredging on the east side of the lake. The Ohio Department of Resources has been extremely diligent in its work, but we need more. The launch is a start for the township, but we’re looking for more expansion,” Coleman said. “Buckeye Lake can give us the opportunity for economic development, if done correctly.”

He said part of that comes from a unified vision around the lake, using similar building codes so developers don’t get confused. The goal is to keep a rural feel to the area, so while the township and Perry County could use larger industry jobs, they might not fit.

“We have good access to Interstate 70, and with State Route 13 coming through, we do have good access, but industry should be kept south of the lake. The industrial park in Heath is already a good fit, so we should look at developing retail and tourist-type businesses,” Coleman said. “Change is good, we just have to take advantage of it and direct as best we can.”

Perry County Commissioner Scott Owen said Thorn Township is leading the county’s efforts in improving the lake region, but it’s an important endeavor. With access from Ohio 13, the lake area is the first part people will see as they enter the county.

“The heart and soul of this lake will always be outdoor recreation, like boating, fishing or hunting waterfowl. No matter how many housing developments or hotels come to the area, that’s what we want to preserve,” Owen said. “Depending on how you look at things, Perry County is either really behind or really ahead. We don’t have as much development here, but we are the most ‘shovel-ready’ when it comes to available space.”

He added one of the biggest projects for the east end of the lake is the dredging efforts by ODNR. As the Perry County edge is the most shallow in the lake, anything to improve water quality and depth will “really open up the lake.”

Licking County Commissioner Duane Flowers is his county’s representative on the BLRC board. He said it’s the first time all three counties have worked together and looked at the lake as a region, not for its individual municipalities.

“It’s a great system to have, especially when something like the dam project is announced.

With so many different groups getting so many different messages, it was easy to see why things could get confusing,” Flowers said. “Now, we can look at obstacles that affect one area of the lake together, for instance, stormwater mitigation, it’s one thing that affects the region as a whole.”

He said it’s important to work on these issues together because the whole region stands to benefit from economic development. He pointed at the development already happening along Interstate 70, and that the corridor only has room to grow.

“We can’t hesitate, we have to get our plans right and make sure we’re cooperating. We’ve got location, we’ve got workforce, we’ve got transportation. We need to bring everyone along together, otherwise it all falls apart,” Flowers said. “This has been a grassroots movement from the beginning, and it really lets the locals feel like they have a voice in these big decisions.”

Rick Szabrak, the economic development director in Fairfield County, said the lake region has shown great improvement in recent years, which helps draw more businesses to the area. While there are many opportunities on the lake, having more off the lake helps.

“We’re looking for more yearlong residents, not just tourists. Affordable housing is a key concern for the area, and while we’ve seen service wages increase steadily, we’re hoping housing begins to get resolved,” Szabrak said. “But also developing more tourism activities can be helpful. The lake is an ideal spot for some kind of resort, with indoor and outdoor attractions. Something like that, especially for Fairfield County, would be terrific, it’s a prime spot.”

He added he’s been impressed with the municipal collaboration, that not being all one entity can impede the work, but so far, everything has gelled together quite nicely.

Fairfield County Commissioner Dave Levacy said in his 52 years on the lake as a business owner running the Buckeye Lake Marina, the recent endeavors by the BLRC and local municipalities are progress.

“I’ll say that over the years, over the decades really, it doesn’t feel like much has been done with intention, there hasn’t been a vision. But now, we’re seeing that this kind of cooperation really helps. What’s good for the lake region is good for Fairfield County,” Levacy said. “We’re looking at the bigger picture now. Central Ohio is estimated to grow by half a million people by 2040, and we need to make sure they have recreation available to keep them here, and that it’s a nice place to live as well.”