Women with shopping bags walking in downtown Celina (photo by Doug Hinebaugh)
Ohio Life | Best Hometowns

Best Hometowns 2023: Celina

Located along Grand Lake St. Marys, this agricultural area of Ohio embraces its shore-town appeal with waterfront development and downtown businesses that cater to residents and travelers alike.

Standing at the edge of Grand Lake St. Marys in June, it is easy to see how the enormous body of water shapes life for those who live along it. Kids with fishing rods cast lines near the shore, and leisure boats cut across the lake’s wind-rippled surface. A working lighthouse built by Celina’s Rotary Club rises at the lake’s edge, while the bright hues of the city’s Boardwalk Village — the first phase of a new waterfront development — stands out against the summer sky.

Covering 13,500 surface acres, Grand Lake St. Marys is the largest manmade body of water completely in the state of Ohio. Prior to construction of the Hoover Dam, it had the distinction of being the largest manmade lake in the world. Maybe most surprising is that Grand Lake St. Marys was dug by hand — an effort that began in 1837 to create a feeder for the Miami & Erie Canal to ensure the vital waterway maintained a depth of 5 feet.

Today, the lake is the centerpiece of life in Celina. The community, which has a population of around 10,900, sits along its northwest corner. Just off the water, there is a city park and beyond that a small coffee shop where you are likely to run into Mayor Jeffrey Hazel — not at a table drinking his morning cup of joe but behind the counter pouring yours.
      Person fishing along Grand Lake St. Marys in Celina (photo by Rachael Jirousek)

Grand Lake St. Marys has been a centerpiece of this part of Ohio for generations. It was dug by hand — an effort that began in 1837 — to create a feeder for the Miami & Erie Canal. (photo by Rachael Jirousek)

Along with a manufacturing company that makes overhead conveyors for businesses such as dry cleaners, the mayor owns Hazelnut Coffeehouse. He also roasts coffee beans for several other shops in northwest Ohio and across the border in Indiana.

“I stay really busy with a myriad of things. I just have fun,” says Hazel, who will begin his fourth term as mayor of Celina in January. “That’s kind of my happy spot: in the shop. I get the chance to talk to all kinds of people — a lot of visitors —but I also get the chance to talk to a lot of people who would not come to the mayor’s office.”

Hazel, a native of Indianapolis, mentions with a chuckle that he is the only person ever elected mayor of Celina who didn’t grow up in the area. His wife did though. Like a lot of small towns, tradition is woven into daily life here, be it the architectural gem that is the 100-year-old Mercer County Courthouse with its ornate central stairway or The James Watson House, an elegant yet accessible restaurant that opened this year in a 19th-century building downtown.
     Chicken and waffle entree at The James Watson House restaurant in Celina (photo by Rachael Jirousek)

The James Watson House restaurant opened in a historic downtown building. It’s ever-changing menu spans steaks and chops to sandwiches to entrees like chicken and waffles (above). (photo by Rachael Jirousek)

James Watson Riley founded Celina (pronounced sa-line-a) in 1834. He named it after the lakeside town of Salina, New York, which he visited during his travels, but changed the spelling to avoid confusion at the post office. Celina grew slowly over the decades, but the discovery of oil and gas in the area saw the town’s population nearly double to 2,684 residents between 1880 and 1890.

Today, agriculture is a major part of the regional economy, but Celina also has a solid industrial base. Crown Equipment Corp. employs 1,050 in the city. Celina Aluminum Precision Technology, which is owned by Honda and makes parts for the company’s cars, has 612 workers. The Dayton-based Reynolds & Reynolds employs 400 people in Celina. Other large job providers include Mercer Health, which employs just under 850, and the Celina City School District, which employs around 600. In all, Hazel estimates there are approximately 600 businesses located within 1 mile of Celina.

The community is also focused on upgrading its schools. In 2021, voters approved a levy to fund the construction of new buildings. An addition to the existing Celina Intermediate School Building, which will now house elementary students, and the construction of a new junior-senior high school are scheduled to be completed for the 2025-26 school year.
      Lighthouse along Grand Lake St. Mary’s and Mercer County Courthouse rotunda in Celina (photos by Rachael Jirousek)

Multiple lighthouses stand along the shore of Grand Lake St. Marys. The Mercer County Courthouse is an architectural gem with its beautiful rotunda and ornate central staircase. (photos by Rachael Jirousek)

Over the past decade, Celina has taken a big step forward in becoming a destination for travelers as well. When Grand Lake St. Marys experienced harmful algal blooms in 2010, a consortium of organizations banded together to find a solution to help restore the lake as a focal point of which the community could be proud.

“Mercer County and Auglaize County are hardworking German Americans and they just do not give up,” says Dave Faler, manager at Grand Lake St. Marys State Park. “This was kind of Ground Zero for harmful algae blooms, and we’ve done all kinds of things to get to the point where we are now. We found the best way to treat the water and clean it is to run it through wetlands.”

Water from tributaries are pumped into wetlands along the lake. Aquatic vegetation in these wetlands slows the flow of water, allowing solids in the water to drop. The plants also help consume the excess nutrients in the water before they reach the lake. Grand Lake St. Marys has long been vital to the local economy, but recreation became part of that equation after the body of water was one of the first dedicated as an Ohio State Park in 1949. Fishing, boating and a campground draw travelers to the area.
      Bucket hat, coffee mug and shirts at the 419 Collective in Celina (photo by Rachael Jirousek)

The 419 Collective sells products ranging from locally made goods to vintage finds from dozens of vendors who sell their wares there. (photo by Rachael Jirousek)

In recent years, downtown Celina has seen the opening of new restaurants, a brewery, shops and other businesses that provide a place for travelers to explore and enjoy when they’re not on the water. Along South Main Street, historic downtown buildings are filled with the types of businesses one expects to find in a shore town. The 419 Collective, which is housed in a large downtown space, bills itself as a modern-day boutique, mercantile and gift shop. It sells products ranging from locally made goods to vintage finds from a variety of vendors. Owner Steph Piper opened the place as a one-off test during a downtown event, and the response was so good, she kept it going.

“We started off with maybe just one or two people I knew who had some stuff, and we now have 60 vendors from all over,” she says. “People tell me, ‘We came from an hour away because we saw you had vintage. … Once I saw that, I thought, ‘We can totally do this.’ ” 

Elsewhere on Main Street, longtime local establishments like Wilson Shoe Store and Jones Jeweler operate alongside spots like Lake Rat Brewing and Brew Nation. The Anchor serves up a selection of great casual fare and is known for its burgers, while The James Watson House offers an evolving menu that spans items from sandwiches and tacos to steaks and chops to entrees like truffle mushroom ravioli and lobster mac and cheese.
      Four kids on big beach chair at Celina’s Boardwalk Village (photo courtesy of Boardwalk Village)

Boardwalk Village offers an island-style destination with vibrantly colored vacation cottages and townhomes along the shore of Grand Lake St. Marys. (photo courtesy of Boardwalk Village)

The opening of the Boardwalk Village in summer 2022 rekindled the resort vibe for which Celina was once known. The first phase included the construction of eight brightly colored individual cottages, four townhomes and two penthouses that can be rented for overnight stays. There is a salt-water swimming pool in the center of them and the on-site Boardwalk Grill offers travelers an island-style hangout. Partnerships with Helton Lodge Boat Rentals and Rush Sports Complex’s Par-Tee Golf Lounge and Bar allow guests access to on- or off-the-water recreation, while the Blue Goose weekend shuttle provides rides downtown. 

Boardwalk Village property manager Nikki Herring says more rental properties and individually owned vacation homes will bring the total number of units to 48 by the time the project’s second phase is complete. A second swimming pool and green space for gatherings are in those plans as well. 

“We’re already booking out next summer. We have some weekends where we have a waitlist going,” Herring says. “I pride myself on customer service … having a place that people feel comfortable staying in — making sure it is top-notch, five-star, clean and fully furnished … so all they need to do is pack a bag.” 

Best Hometowns 2023-24: Celina | Cuyahoga Falls | Grove City | Lancaster | Sharonville