Mary Beth Lane | The Columbus Dispatch

BUCKEYE LAKE — With completion of the Buckeye Lake dam project in sight, community leaders are discussing how the region can best prepare for the growth and development that’s widely expected to take hold.

The nonprofit organization Buckeye Lake 2030 plans to host a series of meetings this week to continue bringing into focus a shared vision for the future of the resort area about 25 miles east of Columbus.

The planning discussions come as residents and business owners look forward to what they expect to be a more normal summer on the lake, including more business for restaurants, bars and other establishments that depend on boat traffic.

State officials are keeping the water level this summer at 1 foot below the normal 6-foot summer depth while the $110 million dam project is being finished. Completion is now anticipated for the fall of 2018, a year ahead of schedule.

The Fourth of July boat parade, a decades-old tradition, will resume for the first time since 2014. (The water was too shallow for the parade the last two summers.) Boats will line up at 10:30 a.m. at Liebs Island for the parade, which starts at 11 a.m., said Trudy Craig, of the Buckeye Lake Area Civic Association.

Representatives from multiple homeowners associations, the local chamber of commerce and local governments will participate in the planning sessions this week.

The lake region takes in parts of Fairfield, Licking and Perry counties, including multiple villages, townships and school districts governed by different elected officials. Household incomes in the area range from low to very high.

The idea is to pull together as a region to develop a common vision to guide the expected growth and development, said Mike Fornataro, who was hired recently as the $30,000-a-year executive director of Buckeye Lake 2030 and is the only paid employee.

“There’s never been a unified voice,” said Fornataro, who lives in Buckeye Lake village and was the longtime general manager of the National Trail Raceway near Hebron before taking the Buckeye Lake 2030 job. “You wind up with haphazard development with no plan.

“With the dam remediation project and the amount of publicity the lake has gotten, as a region so close to the Columbus metropolitan area, it is anticipated there is going to be a lot of growth,” Fornataro said. “If you don’t have a plan, that growth may not be sustainable. It is a plan for sustainable growth, which has never existed. No one has ever represented the whole region to open that dialogue.”

Urban planners and designers from DPZ of Miami, MKSK of Columbus and Gibbs Planning Group of Birmingham, Michigan, have scheduled working meetings today through Friday with small groups of local and state officials, county planners, local parks and recreation officials, business leaders and others to help shape a plan.

Areas to be discussed by each small group include managing growth and economic development, transportation, land use, and the environment and natural assets of the region.

The planning discussions will be shared with the general public at three larger evening meetings this week so people can comment.

The meetings are included within approximately $175,000 the organization has budgeted so far for initial planning, including paying the urban planners and designers for their expertise, said Treasurer Rich Smith.

Buckeye Lake 2030 has received about $200,000 to date in private donations and fundraising continues, Smith said. Donors include the Columbus Foundation, the Robert F. Wolfe and Edgar T. Wolfe Foundation and Wolfe Associates Inc. (The family that formerly owned The Dispatch has deep ties to the Buckeye Lake region), and others who have lake homes, such as Easton Town Center developer Yaromir Steiner.

Steiner has helped organize planning discussions since December 2015, when about 40 civic leaders gathered for breakfast at the Buckeye Lake Yacht Club to discuss what the region could become after the new dam was built.

The organization also plans to apply for grants. Its planning work is intended to tie in with and build upon publicly funded projects that include building a waterfront park with boating access in Thorn Township in Perry County, improving the Fairfield Beach neighborhood in Walnut Township in Fairfield County and sprucing up the downtowns of Buckeye Lake village and Millersport.

The new dam will replace the nearly 200-year-old earthen dam, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found was at significant risk of failure.

An Ohio Department of Natural Resources rendering shows the 4.1-mile dam clad in a concrete cap and topped with both grass and a paved path, which will provide access for dam-safety inspectors and recreation for walkers, joggers and bicyclists.

The Buckeye Lake 2030 community vision discussed so far anticipates additional housing, lodging and shops, connected bike trails, a clean lake and well-maintained public parks, docks and marinas that will make the area a regional destination for tourists and a good place to live and work.

“The Buckeye Lake region is a jewel. We just need to shine it up a bit,” Smith said.

The public can attend meetings today, Wednesday and Friday, all from 6 to 8 p.m., at First Community Church, 4381 Walnut Road in Buckeye Lake village, to participate in the planning process.

@MaryBethLane1 development-of-buckeye-lake-region