Downtown Sandusky recasts itself as more than a seasonal attraction

In February 2021, the city commission approved an updated downtown master plan. The document emphasizes housing, walkability and connections to the water.

That plan builds on a first wave of investments, from public gathering spaces to a cluster of single-family homes starting to rise at the eastern edge of downtown. Some of the new initiatives will be paid for, at least in part, by an agreement forged between the city and Cedar Fair, amid concerns that the publicly traded company was preparing to move its headquarters to North Carolina.

In October, officials announced a deal that keeps Cedar Fair’s offices in Sandusky and raises tax collections tied to the park. On Jan. 1, the city’s admissions tax rate doubled, to 8%. And Sandusky implemented a new, 8% tax on parking.

The revenues, an estimated $4.5 million a year, will go toward projects that benefit the community and Cedar Point. Those include a rebuilt causeway leading to the park, with protected access for pedestrians and cyclists; a planned water-taxi service linking downtown and Cedar Point; and a land swap that will give the city control of the Jet Express ferry terminal, which serves the Lake Erie islands, and a neighboring historic building.

The city also plans to improve basic services and to build a new recreation center. Wobser describes the overall package as the second phase of a strategic investment plan.

This month, the city released a request for proposals to test developers’ interest in building a roughly 120-room downtown hotel and conference center. The site is a parking lot behind the Sandusky State Theatre, a landmark venue that is rebuilding after incurring severe damage from a 2020 storm.

Nikki Lloyd, who owns the nine-room Hotel Kilbourne across the street, isn’t concerned about the competition. The city needs more, Lloyd said — more retail, more foot traffic and, yes, more lodging.

She and her wife, tattoo artist Robin Lloyd, also operate a rooftop bar, a taco joint and a gift shop. They’re preparing to open an art gallery and to co-host the fifth annual Sandusky Pride, a festival set to bring thousands of people downtown June 24-26.

“We’re juggling so many different things,” Nikki Lloyd said, “but we want to make sure that Sandusky has everything it should have to be attractive.”

Other investors say that wish list includes co-working facilities, broader dining options, downtown groceries and winter activities, such as an outdoor holiday market. The Greater Sandusky Partnership, a nascent economic development organization, is studying the landscape and identifying avenues for adding residents and businesses.

Joe Roman, the former CEO of the Greater Cleveland Partnership, is leading the group while serving as interim director for the Erie County Chamber of Commerce. He spends a few days each week in Sandusky, often commuting from his home in Fairview Park.

“The idea of living somewhere like Erie County, Sandusky or Vermilion, and going to work in downtown Cleveland two days a week, is something in our future as well,” he predicted.

Andy Weber decamped to Sandusky from Arlington, Virginia, during the pandemic.

His wife, Christine Parthemore, grew up in the area and has family there, including a brother who runs the Sandusky State Theatre. The couple’s sojourn, spurred by shutdowns and a child care crisis for their young daughter, has lasted much of two years.

Parthemore, 41, runs a think tank based in Washington, D.C. She takes video calls from the library of the couple’s century-old home, which they bought for $147,000 in 2018. Between meetings, she can break away to kayak or birdwatch in a nearby wildlife area.

Weber, a 62-year-old former U.S. assistant secretary of defense, calls Sandusky “the remote worker’s paradise.” He and Parthemore have purchased other real estate in the city and are investors in a deal to convert a shuttered downtown grocery store into a food hall.

Perched on a stool at Paddle Bar on a sun-drenched Tuesday afternoon, Weber said he’s certain of two things. First, the couple’s odds of moving back to Virginia full time are slim.

And second? “This,” he said, “is the year the city launches.”

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