Best Hometowns 2021: Sandusky
This Erie County city embraces its location along the Lake Erie shore with new development that is changing both the face of downtown and the community.
Standing along the edge of Jackson Street Pier, the breadth of Sandusky Bay spreads out before you. In the distance to the east, the steel curls of roller coasters such as Millennium Force and Top Thrill Dragster rise up against the sky. Out to the west, the Sandusky coal dock serves as a reminder that the city is home to a working port that sees the comings and goings of Lake Erie freighters.
Sandusky’s Jackson Street Pier bridges these two worlds — the fun promised by the amusement park across the water and the vital role Lake Erie plays in the local economy, particularly for the boat lines, shops, restaurants and other businesses along its shore.
City manager Eric Wobser understands this as well as anyone. He grew up in Sandusky, and after previously spending four years as a special projects manager to the mayor of Cleveland and four years as executive director at the neighborhood development corporation Ohio City Inc., he returned to his hometown in 2014. Since then, Sandusky — known to most for its world-renowned amusement park — has turned into a destination for waterfront recreation, but one supported by new downtown development that is giving the city a renewed look and fresh future.
“I’ve been blown way, most of all, by the sense of community that has come together in the downtown this year,” says Wobser as we meet at Jackson Street Pier on a quiet morning in July. “You saw the beginnings of it last year. You saw it was attracting a whole new group of Sanduskians to come downtown and see it in a different light.”
The Jackson Street Pier project, which was completed in summer 2020, turned a former parking lot into a public gathering space and reoriented the focal point of the city’s waterfront. What were once the unremarkable backs of buildings now sport signs that draw travelers in. The rooftop patio of the boutique Hotel Kilbourne looks over the pier, and utility lines and other infrastructure that once marred the view are now underground. (The area also remains home to docks for the Goodtime I, Jet Express and Pelee Islander boat lines, which ensure a steady flow of people.)
Between the buildings and the lake, Shoreline Drive runs alongside the Sandusky Bay Pathway. The bikeway stretches just 2 miles at present, but plans call for it to be extended to a total of 13 miles connecting the city’s west and east sides by 2029.
This nearly 9.9-square-mile Erie County city of more than 25,000 residents has seen change that goes beyond the waterfront though. New downtown reinvestment is reviving tired city blocks into a welcoming, walkable and vibrant place to live, work and visit.
Since 2016, downtown Sandusky has experienced more than $100 million in public and private investment. Along with the waterfront revitalization, these efforts included moving city hall to part of a multibuilding redevelopment project on the southern side of downtown, a collaboration between Bowling Green State University and Cedar Fair to offer a resort-and-attraction-management degree at a 15,000-square-foot downtown learning space, 30 new businesses and 100 new apartments. A rebuilding project on the site of the Cooke Building (soon to be known as the Hogrefe Building) is underway as well.
Walk through downtown, and you quickly encounter places that embody this change. A cavernous former bank building has been turned into Vita, a coffee shop, artisan market and bistro. Paddle + Climb offers a selection of outdoor gear, kayak rentals, an indoor rock wall and tasty cocktails served at a tiny island-style bar in the back.
Elsewhere downtown, Small City Taphouse draws diners with its popular small-batch brews, 80 beers on tap and Asian classics like sushi, pho and noodles, while Soda Pop’s stocks retro candies and other fun finds. It all adds up to a distinctly shore-town vibe that is both family friendly and accessible.
In 2020, the regional visitor bureau, Lake Erie Shores & Islands, moved its headquarters to a renovated historic downtown building originally built in the 1860s. (The organization left its former location along U.S. Route 250 near the Sandusky Mall in 2018.) With its wood-floored lobby and large windows that invite sunlight to spill in, the new space offers an inviting starting point for visitors who want information about attractions in the area.
“We definitely see a need to just be down here where the people are again … being part of the resurgence of Sandusky and having the opportunity to be in a beautiful historic building,” says Jill Bauer, public relations manager at Lake Erie Shores & Islands.
That mix of heritage and redevelopment is at the heart of what Sandusky is and continues to become. Longtime attractions like the Merry-Go-Round Museum (housed in the city’s former post office building) and the Maritime Museum of Sandusky (which shares the history of life along the lake since before the city’s 1818 founding) complement these new reasons to visit that have appeared since 2016.
The Sandusky State Theatre is another one of these cornerstones. It has stood along downtown’s Columbus Avenue since 1928. During the summer of 2020, a powerful storm blew in off the lake and caused part of the venue to collapse. The damage was serious, but work began immediately to bring the theater back. Soon after the storm, a quote from “Finding Neverland” — the most recent show to take the theater stage — graced the marquee: “All that matters is where I go from here.”
The theater’s executive director Chris Parthemore arrived at the theater the night of the storm within minutes of the damage occurring and has spent untold hours there ever since. Although no reopening date has been set, restoration work is already happening. As he shares the progress that has been made so far, he says the stroke of misfortune has shown him what the theater means to Sandusky and those who live here.
“We hear stuff all the time like, ‘I met my wife there’ or ‘I used to work there’ or ‘I saw my first movie there as a kid,’ ” Parthemore says. “It helps to know how much of an emotional connection people have to it, because it makes it really easy to come to work and do this work for the community.”