Long before he ran the public schools in Toledo and Cleveland, Eugene Sanders was a proud Blue Streak, a newly graduated from Sandusky High School and a freshman at Bowling Green State University.
He vividly recalls telling his new classmates where he was from — only to be greeted by blank stares, even from other Ohioans who had grown up nearby. And that’s when Sanders, now back home as CEO of the school system he attended as a child, would play his trump card:
Ever been to Cedar Point?
“Oh yeah,” they’d almost always say. “I’ve been there.”
“And I’d tell them,” Sanders says, “that when you’ve been to Cedar Point, you’ve been to Sandusky, Ohio.”
Gene Sanders returned to Sandusky in 2012, semi-retired and planning to serve a year as interim schools CEO. Seven years later, he’s still on the job and the local school system is growing. [Jean-Marie Papoi / ideastream]
Decades later, Cedar Point remains an outsized presence in Sandusky, its main economic driver and claim to fame: 3.5 million annual visitors have that effect. So do steel towers that are easily seen from downtown and neon constellations that light up the night sky.
And yet, while leaders in both the public and private sectors are quick to praise Cedar Point both an enormous asset and a stellar corporate citizen, they also want the world to know there’s a lot more to Sandusky these days than rollercoasters and water slides.
Cedar Point is a touchstone for many and a good neighbor to the city, but it's also not the only attraction in a modern, reimagined Sandusky, Ohio. [Tim Dubravetz / ideastream]
Enter The Boomerangs
“This is fantastic place for entrepreneurs,” says Nikki Lloyd, standing on the patio of the rooftop bar at the Hotel Kilbourne, the waterfront boutique inn she and business partner Ryan Whaley opened in 2016. “This more you get involved in the community, the more supportive our community becomes.”
Lloyd specializes in restoring majestic old buildings. And there are a lot of them in downtown Sandusky — a legacy of prosperity once based on easy access to water and rail.
Long before there was an amusement park on the bay, Sandusky’s beautiful natural harbor enabled Northern Ohio farmers to ship their produce throughout the Great Lakes, and runaway slaves to sail to freedom in Canada. Its factories churned out everything from crayons to wagons wheels. In winter, ice cut from the waters north of downtown preserved the food for residents of Millionaire’s Row in Cleveland.
“To be able to renovate an old building, a historic building, is really exciting to me,” says Lloyd. “That becomes a little addictive.”
Lloyd’s a city commissioner as well as a businesswoman. But maybe most important for understanding the quiet renaissance that’s attracted $300 million of investment to Sandusky since the end of the Great Recession, she’s what demographers sometimes call a boomerang.
Entrepreneur and City Commissioner Nikki Lloyd returned to the Sandusky area after retail pharmacy stints in Colorado and South Carolina. [Tim Dubravetz / ideastream]
Lloyd grew up a few miles away in Berlin Heights. Like a lot of smart young people in small town America, she figured she had to get away to get ahead. So she got a pharmacy degree, ended up in Colorado. But after a decade, she and Whaley – another native son -- decided to come home.
“I realized like Sandusky is a hidden gem and we're not taking full advantage of it,” she said. “We also saw a couple of restaurants open in the downtown area and saw overwhelming community support, and it just seemed like our community was ready for something more.”
Lloyd and Whaley are not the only ones boomeranging back to make a difference in the waterfront city almost exactly midway between Cleveland and Toledo:
- Richard Hogrefe hit it big in biotech in California, and is now investing big in downtown buildings he hopes to fill with residents and start-up businesses.
- Gene Sanders returned to Sandusky in 2012, semi-retired and planning to serve a year as interim schools CEO. He’s still on the job, overseeing construction of three new schools for Sandusky’s 3,500 public school students and an academic overhaul of the system he and his 10 siblings attended.
- Chris Parthemore so missed Lake Erie that he walked away from a lucrative job in Nashville and now runs the beautifully restored State Theater, downtown Sandusky’s cultural hub.
- City Manager Eric Wobser came back five years ago after running Ohio City Inc., where he helped shift the renaissance of that Cleveland neighborhood into overdrive. Parthemore calls Wobser the “glue” holding together another urban comeback.
“I loved what I was doing in Ohio City and Cleveland,” says Wobser. “It was a difficult decision to come back, but to be able to make a mark in your hometown and to be a part of something special with so many others who were going through something very similar has been really exciting and rewarding and five years has gone by very fast.
“It feels like we've covered a lot of distance in that period, but we know that if we keep working together we can cover even more ground.”
Reimagining A 200-Year-Old City
There’s palpable energy in downtown Sandusky these days — and a steady drum beat of hammers.
The city government Wobser runs just moved into a restored three-building complex with a most unusual tenant mix: Municipal offices, of course, plus apartments and ground level retail.
A few blocks away, Bowling Green is building a five-story school of resort and attraction management in conjunction with Cedar Point.
New residential projects are underway, the Jackson Street pier is getting a boardwalk and amphitheater, and soon a bikeway will stretch along the bay from Cedar Point through downtown to the western edge of Sandusky.
“We know that will help us attract more tourists, but it also improves the lifestyle for locals,” says Wobser. “And we think if we continue to make this a very attractive place to live affordably that will bring the entrepreneurs and the types of people that can attract additional new economy investment into Sandusky.”
Sandusky native and City Manager Eric Wobser came back five years ago after leading a renaissance for a Cleveland neighborhood with Ohio City, Inc.. [Jean-Marie Papoi / ideastream]
The wind wasn’t always at their backs. When Wobser arrived five years ago, City Hall was plagued by turnover and the city was in fiscal distress.
But that fall, a coalition of public and private leaders proposed raising both the local income tax and the admissions tax at Cedar Point. Besides shoring up public services, the deal promised money for downtown development and for neighborhood improvements. The same electorate that had previously rejected three different tax proposals, passed this one easily.
Then came a strategic planning process pegged to Sandusky’s 2018 bicentennial. Some two thousand people — in a city of 25,000 — participated, drafting a blueprint that included community-based policing and expanded public transit.
It’s a blueprint that isn’t collecting dust at City Hall.
Lloyd, who’s stepping down from the commission after a single term, says Sandusky’s leaders don’t want their town’s budding success to drive out longtime residents. She points to targeted investment in parks and recreation and programs to help home owners improve their properties.
Wobser notes that by expanding the hours of its public transit and redrawing routes, ridership has tripled, and it’s now easier for residents to find employment at Cedar Point.
“We want to see downtown continue to take off, and we want to see stabilization in our neighborhoods,” says Wobser.
Investing in education was also part of the master plan, and in 2016, voters again reached into their pockets, okaying a $70 million school construction package.
“We want Sandusky to be great, and we want people to know who we are and what we can do,” says Sanders. “And candidly I believe the stars are aligned.”
Starting To Believe Again
As the city’s progress has become more visible, the skepticism that greeted pioneer entrepreneurs like Whaley has dissipated. When he first opened a restored speakeasy, many people told him Sandusky was no place for an upscale bar. Now Whaley’s pub is a place that locals proudly point out to visitors. He’s gone on to open the Kilbourne, an outdoors clothing and equipment store and most recently, an axe-throwing bar.
“I'm seeing folks that have maybe lived here their whole lives, that kind of had a grumpy disposition because they lived through that rougher time, when there wasn't a whole lot to do downtown, when they saw the factories close during the recession, starting to kind of have a little bit more energy,” said Whaley. “There’s certainly still some negative voices, but I just put on the blinders and say, let me prove you wrong.”
Parthemore says that when he and his wife returned in 2010, “There were only two or three restaurants downtown. You know there wasn't this influx of young people that we've seen yet. And it's just gained more and more momentum.”
The restored State Theater has become downtown Sandusky’s cultural hub since Chris Parthemore returned to the shores of his beloved Lake Erie from Nashville. [Jean-Marie Papoi / ideastream]
This spring, USA Today held a contest to name the top small coastal city in America. Sandusky won the online poll, beating out resort towns on both coasts.
The paper’s methodology virtually invites a community to stuff the ballot box, but Wobser loved the affirmation from his neighbors. He saw the vote as evidence people in Sandusky now believe in themselves – and in the direction of their city.
“I think it's just like I would see in Cleveland where if you're your own worst critic, it's hard for you to sell yourselves to outsiders,” says Wobser. “And I think Sandusky had been really hard on itself and it was identifying itself more by its challenges, which were common, rather than by its assets which are truly unique.”
Jim Ervin and his partner moved to Sandusky around the time of bicentennial to start a Segway tour business. Like many folks, he never realized Sandusky even had a downtown, despite a lifetime of trips to Cedar Point. He recalls meeting Wobser on an early visit and asking a tough question:
“I said, ‘Are you okay with two gay men coming into your city and opening a Segway tour company?’ I was just curious. I just wanted to ask the question and Eric, without hesitation, said, ‘Absolutely. The more diverse we are the stronger we are.’ So that was my first interaction with the city we went from there.”
Jim Ervin now runs a Segway tour business in Sandusky, but for years was one of those people who had been to Cedar Point but didn't necessarily associate the city with the amusement park. [Tim Dubravetz / ideastream]
Is There A Roadmap Here?
In 2016, John Begala, a former state representative who was then executive director of the Cleveland-based Center for Community Solutions, wrote a report about the myriad problems and diminished opportunities facing mid-sized Ohio cities.
Most had once been kingpins in their regions. Sandusky was the commercial hub for banking and shipping between Cleveland and Toledo. Cities like Mansfield and Steubenville were similarly successful — until deindustrialization and globalization left them in a world of hurt.
So has Sandusky found an antidote to decline?
The boomerang brigade thinks it might. They talk about capitalizing on solid infrastructure, historic architecture and walkability. About pitching entrepreneurs on a city that’s still small enough that you can run into a banker at breakfast and chat up your latest investment idea. About providing urban amenities in a place where turn of the last century brick houses still sell for less than $100,000. About creating a lifestyle that will appeal to empty nesters and knowledge workers who can live anywhere — so why not on a Great Lake?
New and reimagined businesses line Sandusky's historic main drag. [Tim Dubravetz / ideastream]
“As long as we can find our niche within those markets I think these places can continue to thrive,” Wobser says. “And it won't look like yesterday, but it doesn't mean it can't be a bright future.”
Lloyd, who remembers when downtown Sandusky was a ghost town, now loves showing it off — especially to friends visiting for the first time.
“They always are amazed that you can't see on the other side of Lake Erie,” Lloyd says. “And they can't believe that this beautiful place is located in Ohio.”