By Mary Beth Lane | The Columbus Dispatch

BUCKEYE LAKE — The Buckeye Lake waterfront is starting to transform from a construction site to a 4.1-mile scenic shoreline for public use as the four-year project to build a new dam nears completion. Crews are putting the finishing touches on the estimated $110 million project, which is scheduled to be done in late autumn, a year ahead of the originally announced schedule.

The new dam itself has been built, replacing the nearly 200-year-old earthen dam, which was deemed at significant risk of failure by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Now workers are laying a concrete cap along the dam top, which will next be paved with asphalt to create a 12-foot-wide path for walkers, joggers and cyclists. Workers also are adding topsoil and grading the land on either side of the path and preparing to seed it for grass. A new sidewalk also has been laid inland from the grassy areas and path, directly in front of the 371 houses that line the dam route.

Gov. John Kasich announced in March 2015 that the state would build a new dam. The lake was kept shallow and off-limits to boating during construction in 2015 and 2016, which hurt business at local bars and restaurants. Boating resumed in 2017, and continued this year as work progressed and the state allowed higher water levels. The lake will return to its normal 6-foot summer pool next spring.

“Having the dam completed is like the beginning for us, not the end,” said Millersport resident Dave Levacy, who owns Buckeye Lake Marina and also is a Fairfield County commissioner. “It’s the beginning of everything that is to come.”

Many residents and business owners in the Buckeye Lake region, which takes in parts of Fairfield, Licking and Perry counties about 25 miles east of Columbus, anticipate the area will attract new residential and commercial development now that the dam project is being completed.

Home sales on the lake are up slightly this year over last, and real estate agents say the future looks bright. Waterfront homeowners along the dam route are waiting to hear details on the dock designs the state will allow.

Homeowners are breathing sighs of relief that the project end is in sight, said Mike Fornataro, who lives on the lake’s north bank and is executive director of the nonprofit Buckeye Lake Region Corporation.

“The mood is of great anticipation,” he said.

Several other improvement projects also are planned for the area:

‒ Local officials plan to use $500,000 in state capital improvements funding to develop a waterfront park on the Perry County side of the lake and provide access to the lake for canoeists and kayakers.

‒ Also on the Perry County side, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has paid $818,000 for a 68-acre field that will provide space for long-term storage and disposal of sediment dredged from the east end of the lake. More dredging promises a cleaner, clearer and deeper lake more navigable for boating and other water sports, local officials say.

‒ Local and state officials plan to spend $400,000 in state capital improvements funding on preliminary engineering and other work to build a 300-foot-long public pier on the lake’s north bank that could include public docks, and another $400,000 in state capital funds to help restore and clean up the silt-laden feeder channel that carries water to the lake.

In addition to the state funding authorized for the projects, the Buckeye Lake Region Corporation is working with the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission to identify grants and other funding sources that could be tapped for those projects and others, Fornataro said.

Besides the publicly funded projects to improve the region, a volunteer effort is under way to restore an 88-foot donated stern-wheeler and launch it next spring.

Queen of the Lake III, which seats 40, will offer dinner cruises and other outings to the public and also will be available for rental by private groups, said J-me Braig, director of the Buckeye Lake Museum.

“It’s going to be the crown jewel of the lake, and it’s going to help us bring tourism back, for sure,” she said.