In the mid-1980s, Rick Novak approached LTV Steel with a proposition. He had just been hired as executive director of the Lorain Port Authority, and he boldly requested that the steel manufacturing giant donate property along the Black River for recreational use.
“They laughed,” Novak recalls. “They said, ‘you’ve got some guts, kid.’ ”

Novak kept trying. They kept laughing. It took six or seven years persistence before LTV Steel agreed to donate 25 acres of its riverfront property, at the time home to a rail storage yard.

That property became today’s Black River Landing, a grassy riverfront expanse that opened a decade ago and plays host to dozens of festivals, concerts, outdoor movies and other special events every year (see sidebar). Novak develped an idea for another waterfront event space operated by the local port authority.

It’s also what Novak considers the greatest success story in development along the Black River, one of the early ignition points that started the flow of dollars now being invested in Lorain’s riverfront property.

Such projects are how Novak and others are working to raise the city’s profile as a highly desirable place to enjoy Lake Erie for both Lorainers and outsiders. “We’ve been working on [attracting people from outside Lorain],” says Novak, “and it’s starting to pay off for us.”

The Riverfront Economy

Back when LTV was still laughing, Spitzer’s 600-dock Lakeside Marina was the Black River’s most talked-about development. Matt Edwards has managed the marina for the last two decades and has watched the ups and downs of Black River development.

The decline of steel and the downturn in the economy stalled many once-big plans for a riverfront revitalization, “but a lot of that is going away,” Edwards says. “Everyone has really great ideas [for developing the riverfront].”

A dozen years ago, Spitzer teamed up with Zaremba Homes to develop the $100-million, 450-unit riverside housing development HarborWalk, just across the river from Black River Landing. It’s a community of seaside-cottage-style homes on Spitzer’s Riverside Marina, sided in hues of blue, grey and brick red with wrap-around porches.

HarborWalk hasn’t reached its full potential — only about 150 units were built, and the remaining lots were sold at auction in 2010 — but the housing development was an early source of momentum for Black River development. “HarborWalk started it all, but the Port Authority brought it downtown,” says Doug Rangel, executive director of the Lorain Development Corporation.

Jim Andrews credits HarborWalk as one of the reasons his small Black River business has thrived. Andrews has operated the Jackalope restaurant at the mouth of the Black River for 16 years. When he got started, there were enough businesses open in town that he had a steady stream of business lunches. Now Andrews sees a lot of tourists, as well as folks from communities such as Norwalk, Sandusky and Bay Village hoping to catch the sunset over dinner.

He has plenty of regulars, too — folks living just down the street in HarborWalk. “When they went in, it was the first new development in Lorain for years,” says Andrews. “They want to be by the water and have a higher income base … they are just as much an asset to me as I am to them.”

Andrews attributes a boost of 10 to 15 percent in his revenue to HarborWalk, Black River Landing and the Palace Theatre — a movie house on Lorain’s Broadway Avenue, just a block away from the landing. That’s about an equivalent boost he gets from summer boaters. “We quadruple our business from Memorial Day to Labor Day,” he says. “Some people think it’s just the boaters, but it’s not. It’s people who come down here to be by the water.”

Uniquely Lorain

Lorain boosters like Novak and Rangel want the city to stand up and be counted among the best waterfront communities in northeast and north central Ohio, especially with the combined allure of its riverfront and waterfront location.

“Right here in Lorain, we have so many things that are magnificent along the water,” says Mayor Chase Ritenauer. “We get lost in the fact that it’s in our own backyard, and we don’t notice it.”

First, consider Lorain’s location. Plenty of the boaters who dock at Spitzer’s Lakeside and Riverside marinas come from eastern Lorain and Cuyahoga counties, looking to enjoy the lake without driving all the way to Sandusky or Port Clinton, says marina manager Matt Edwards.
The Black River harbor is protected, and it’s deep — about 30 feet — which is a draw for sailboaters in particular, who need extra depth to accommodate their keels, and diehard fishermen. That’s one of the reasons another Black Harbor business is thriving — Sara-J Fishing Charters, captained by Gary Carpenter. He’s busier than the average charter captain, running three boats of 100 trips each per season. He draws customers from as far as Columbus, Erie and Pittsburgh, who descend on Lorain during summer fishing months.

According to Carpenter, prime walleye spend the spring in Port Clinton, where they spawn, then head to Lorain as the water gets warmer. “Here they have shallow when they want it, and deep when they want it,” says Carpenter. “There are tons of minnows here for them to feed on.”

The city’s growing reputation as a fishing destination even caught the attention of the AIM Pro Walleye Series, a professional fishing competition that selected Lorain as its 2012 host site. The competition will draw 120 to 160 anglers for the June 28-30 event, and its organizers estimate the local economy will benefit by approximately $300,000.

Even though boating has become a “bad word” in the words of Andrews — due to the economy’s downturn and high fuel costs — it remains one of the primary drivers of the economy along the Black River. Ken Alvey can tick through nearly a dozen reasons why the Black River is ideal for boaters. As president of the Lake Erie Marine Trades Association, he represents marine-based businesses such as boat dealers, charter captains and marina operators.

Among his list are great lake access, prime fishing grounds, deep water, a Coast Guard station and great beaches. “Every 15 boats in a community equals one full-time local employee,” Alvey notes. Boating tourists may pay for a dock at Spitzer or a meal at Jackalope. They buy bait at the Black River Wharf, ice and snacks at the local convenience store or stroll down to a local event.

“[My customers] see the Black River Landing and they say, ‘hey, what’s over there?’” says Carpenter. “I send them over for movies and events. That kind of stuff is nice.”

Next to Spitzer’s Riverside Marina where Carpenter docks is Lakeside Landing Pier, which got a facelift last year thanks to $3.368 million in federal stimulus money. A zig-zag of yellow, red and gray pavers lead the way to the breakwater, with the lighthouse ahead and the lake beyond. It’s hemmed on the left by Spitzer’s 600 docks and on the right by wetlands filled with sweet-sounding songbirds.

“It’s been complete rehabilitation of the pier,” says Novak. Updates include beautification, added lighting and closer parking. “It’s easier access for people who are fishing or just enjoying the view.”

Clearing Obstacles

Subtract before adding — that’s Rangel’s vision of the Black River’s future. “As we remove obstacles to activities, we will draw developers who have the experience to say, ‘I can develop this,’” he says.

Lorain’s mayor is making progress to remove two of those obstacles. When Republic Steel makes its $85.2 million investment in a new steel furnace in Lorain — expected to add 450 jobs and slated to open next year — First Edison will need to move its substation to provide enough power to that facility. That means moving the substation currently located at Lorain’s Edgewater Park, which will free up waterfront property. “The high-tension wires have also been an impediment to our development,” says Ritenauer. “Now all of that will be moved away.”

Next hurdle: Lorain’s lakefront wastewater treatment plant. Ritenauer is working with other cities on a plan to regionalize wastewater processing, which would mean decommissioning Lorain’s plant. “We’ll see a wrecking ball within four years if this plan moves forward,” says Ritenauer. He adds that major developers have approached the city to discuss new projects along the Black River.

Rangel and other local economic development authorities are also working to connect Lorain’s downtown to the revitalization along the Black River. They foresee a day when Lorain’s Broadway Avenue is dotted with shops and restaurants, places where people can catch a meal or grab a drink before walking to a concert at Black River Landing.

Back at Jackelope, Andrews has his own big ideas for what he’d like to see at the mouth of the Black River, including an RV park with 30 slips at Lakeside Landing and a permanent market akin to Cleveland’s West Side Market. He would welcome a smattering of ethnic restaurants throughout, too.

“Yes, it would mess with my business, but it would bring people out here,” he says. “That’s the way you have to start things off. You build a hub that you can build things around.”

It’s clear that Black River Landing is one such hub. Take a stroll around and you’ll find only a few hints of its industrial past. The rail tracks — now masked by thick grass — act as a threshold into the park, and a historical marker proclaims the spot’s history.

Otherwise, it’s winding paved paths trimmed in hostas and daylilies that meander through open lawns, a red-bricked outdoor stage, picnic pavilions and a rail station-styled structure for indoor events.

“There is the ability to have a blank canvas,” says Rangel. “Whatever happens here will happen for the next 50 to 100 years.”