Aurora making incremental progress in purchase of former Sea World property

The city continues to make “incremental progress” in its bid to purchase 40 acres of former SeaWorld lakefront property, Aurora Law Director Dean DePiero said.

As negotiations inch forward, DePiero told city council Sept. 11 he expects to reach a final deal in a few months. If all parties agree, Aurora City Council will seal the agreement with its vote.

The popular tourist destination closed in 2001, though Wildwater Kingdom continued until 2016.

The proposed purchase encompasses the old Wildwater Kingdom, including the wave pool, the lake and some lakefront property. The city plans to commit some $4.5 million, with about $1.34 million coming from the city’s general fund and almost $1.3 million from ARPA funds.

“Our first priority is the needed infrastructure, including utilities, roads, and parking,” Aurora Mayor Ann Womer Benjamin said. “From there, our focus will be on the pool and the beach.”

Depending on when and if the sale closes and on how fast demolition could go, the plan would be to have some access available by 2025, Womer Benjamin said.

“Some features may be constructed using existing buildings, such as a dock which could be used for boat rentals, and the beautiful former aquarium which could be used as a dining facility. We also expect to construct a welcome center with a community room, walking trails and parking areas,” she said.

Womer Benjamin said city leaders also envision beach recreation facilities, a bath house, picnic pavilions and a “Lake Loop” trail or boardwalk surrounding the lake.

The city will hire a consultant to help design and plan the facility and to evaluate possible usage and/or membership fees, Womer Benjamin said.

The land Aurora proposes to acquire is in Ward 2. Land on the west side of Geauga Lake, up to Lake Avenue and running west off state Route 43, is in Aurora but is not part of the proposed acquisition, she said.

Ward 1 residents across state Route 43 have lake access per their deeds. Their homeowners association, the Geauga Lake Improvement Association, owns a small piece of property off 43, also with lake access, but the acquisition would not affect that property or their lake access rights, Womer Benjamin said.

“The city’s purchase will not impact GLIA’s right to use the lake. In addition, any path that is constructed will not encroach on GLIA property because it is privately owned, unless GLIA gives an easement for such purpose,” Womer Benjamin said.

Melissa Lupton, a member of the Geauga Lake Improvement Association, declined to comment. GLIA is currently tasked with maintaining the lake and surrounding land while also ensuring lake access to residents whose properties border the lake.

There are some homes on Fairview, which runs parallel to state Route 43, at the southwest side. Their properties would not be impacted, Womer Benjamin said.

Ward 1 Council Member Brad Duguay lauded the park purchase as Aurora’s opportunity to spur “proper growth and development” while providing amenities for residents.

“Purchasing the lake allows us to preserve it,” he said. “Without us purchasing the lake, a developer could come in and build big houses backing onto it. It’s really a strategic purchase that will benefit the residents of Aurora.”

Demonstrating proactive fiscal responsibility, city leaders have been saving money for the year the deal has been in the works, Duguay said. Income tax revenue realized from additional employment in the city also helped, as did Aurora’s share of ARPA funds.

The balance will be spread over a couple years, again drawn from income tax revenues and the general fund. City officials have also included the cost of maintaining the park and its planned facilities and amenities into current and future budgets, he added.

While city council members have been focusing on how to spend money in a way that would most benefit Aurora’s residents, some people have likened the park purchase to Twinsburg’s purchase of a golf course and restaurant. The Twinsburg acquisition has allegedly become a money pit instead of a moneymaker, citizens told council members during previous council meetings.

“We’re not interested in building a huge infrastructure. It won’t require the maintenance that a facility or golf course does,” Duguay said, adding that the maintenance will mostly be groundskeeping.

Even if Aurora goes through with plans to turn the aquarium into a restaurant, it would lease the facility to a company that would run it, Duguay said. Selling pool memberships or charging for parking could also generate revenue, he said.

Had Aurora not moved to purchase the park acreage, housing developers were already lining up for it, which would be fine, except residential subdivisions would further stress city schools and result in a loss of green space, he said.

“It’s a great property: lakefront property in a great school district. That’s tough to find,” Duguay said.

Womer Benjamin said the city has been eying the property for about five or six years and has watched as Industrial Commercial Properties, which purchased the land in 2020, sold lots on the lake’s north side for commercial and residential purposes. She said she did not want to see such development on the lake’s south side, in Aurora.

Aurora City School District Superintendent Mike Roberto confirmed that more housing would strain city schools unless voters would pass a new levy. Miller school is now at 139% capacity, Craddock is at 81.5%, Leighton is at 97.6%, Harmon is at 90.3%, and Aurora High School is at 81.4% capacity.

The district is planning to build a new high school.

“In general, due to House Bill 920 [which Ohio legislators passed in 1976], schools do not get more funding as more houses are built,” he said. “Instead, the set voter-approved funding for the schools is distributed over more households, so property taxes would actually drop slightly if more houses are built. However, more houses usually means more kids, so the schools would need to educate more kids with the same amount of money.”

The school district has a 5.9-mill operating levy on the November ballot.

Noting that the planned facility would stress first responders less than 200 homes would, Womer Benjamin said Aurora’s police and fire officials support the park purchase. Neither the police chief nor the fire chief responded to The Portager’s request for comment by publication.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.