Best Hometowns 2013–2014: Aurora

Aurora focuses on education and the importance of natural spaces.

Year founded: 1799
Location: Portage County, 29 miles southeast of Cleveland
Population: 15,548
Size: 25 square miles
Local Flavor: In the 1880s a full-sized steamboat circled Picnic Lake (which is now known as Geauga Lake), pulling a large flat-bottom boat with a dance floor on top for residents and visitors to enjoy.

A little boy about 4 years old runs to “Miss Vera” and hands her a purple flower, somewhat droopy from being held so tightly.

“I picked it just for you,” he says, glancing up in admiration for Vera Holczer, founder and director of the Aurora School of Music.

Holczer gives the boy a big hug before sending him down the hall to watch his big sister’s music lesson. Parents, grandparents and siblings are all encouraged to be part of the school.

“Music should be for everyone and everywhere,” says Holczer, a Hungarian-born pianist, who opened her then-modest music school in Aurora 10 years ago. Today, it boasts more than 800 students and a teaching staff of 35 who represent a range of nationalities.

“I fell in love with Aurora when I first saw it,” says Holczer. “There are so many trees and lovely old historic homes. It was always my dream to open a music school. Aurora is the perfect place.”

Residents have supported the growth of Holczer’s school by enrolling their children in lessons and backing her efforts to make music education an integral part of the community.

Those who live here value a well-rounded education, as evidenced by the fact that the Aurora City School District has been rated “excellent with distinction” for 12 consecutive years by the Ohio Department of Education. The school excels in many Division III sports and around 50 percent of students participate in school athletics programs.

The Aurora School of Music does its part by strengthening curriculum and opportunities for students in both public and private music programs.

The Aurora Chamber of Commerce and the fiscally sound local government have provided support to the music school in the form of economic development advice and exposure. But the entire community pitched in to make sure the beautiful music continued during a financially rough time for the school. In 2009, the company that supplied instruments on commission asked for more money upfront or the school’s practice pianos would be loaded into trucks and hauled away.

“The community raised more than $15,000 in four weeks to help us,” says Christophe Waroquet, Holczer’s husband. “Every big and little business in town donated something.”

The school “uses music like currency,” explains Holczer. The upscale Barrington Golf Club and Walden provide recital space for the music students. In return, the school sends students specializing in chamber music, rock or jazz to play for clients and residents at community parties and business functions throughout the city.

Aurora has experienced a 60 percent boom in population since 1990, but it still bears the hallmarks of its rural past. Visitors find homesteads with split-rail fences across the street from new, upscale housing developments. City leaders have also smartly preserved open spaces as Aurora has grown.

Once a center of cheese production and a farming community into the 1960s, the city now owns more than 1,750 acres of parks and rural land. Included in that total are the recently acquired 196-acre conservation area, Aurora Golf Property and an active community garden area. The 463-acre Sunny Lake Park — well known for its 68-acre lake and boathouse — is becoming a regional destination.

The Moebius Nature Center reflects Aurora’s commitment to education with its preservation and nature programming for all ages. In addition, the Audubon Society of Greater Cleveland owns a wooded wetland that’s home to 58 nesting bird species.

“Our green areas are very important to our residents and those who come to the city to work,” says Mayor James M. Fisher. “There isn’t anything I would change about the city, except maybe adding more value in the form of more walking or biking paths.”