Many Aurora residents were delighted at the surprise announcement from Aurora City Hall of a plan to buy and revive the south side of Geauga Lake, praising the city’s move to preserve the lakefront as a public asset.
But a few concerns began to emerge late last month about the long-term cost and security issues.
Mayor Ann Womer Benjamin presented a proposal to council to acquire 40 acres of lakefront property that formerly belonged to SeaWorld. She hopes to redevelop the land with a pool and a beach, with other amenities including a restaurant, according to the city’s press release.
“It was an opportunity of a lifetime,” Womer Benjamin said. “ICP was going to sell it otherwise, I watched them sell properties on the north side of the lake for commercial and residential uses, and I didn’t want to see that on the south side of the lake — in Aurora.”
ICP refers to Industrial Commercial Properties, which had acquired the land in November 2020. However, the plan to redevelop Geauga Lake originated years before that and began in the mayor’s office.
Womer Benjamin said the city had been looking at the property for five or six years, since the previous park, Wild Water Kingdom, shut down in 2016. City leaders knew they wanted to somehow give the public access to the lake.
“We’ve visited it several times over the last probably five or six years, looked at it from different angles and I realized that I really wanted to gain community access to the lake in some fashion,” Womer Benjamin said in an interview.
The proposal dropped by surprise on June 12. Residents reacted on social media with excitement.
“This is great,” one person wrote on Facebook. “After losing Geauga and Conneaut Lake Parks to private greed, we need to make sure these public gathering places are preserved as public spaces if private business refuses to do so. Public gathering spaces foster physical and mental health along with community-building.”
“This is a huge step in the right direction,” wrote another.
But at the subsequent city council meeting, other views emerged: Residents asked the council how the project will be funded and how the city plans to keep the private property around the park safe from trespassers.
The city’s idea is to finance and construct the project in stages. The first step was to buy the land.
Aurora City Council is considering legislation that will authorized the mayor to buy the property from ICP for $4.5 million. As of July 18, negotiations with the seller are continuing. The next question is demolition costs, which are estimated to total over $1.6 million.
“ICP is planning to pay for up to $800,000 of demolition,” Womer Benjamin said. “They will credit Aurora against the purchase price, but I think our estimates run from somewhere between $1.6 and $1.7 million for the demolition.”
The land still includes some of the former SeaWorld and Wild Water Kingdom structures. The city plans to keep the aquarium and wave pool, which the mayor said will help preserve some of the nostalgia for the former park.
“Not only people in Aurora but people elsewhere have a lot of nostalgic memories regarding these parks, and for many I think it will be very special to come back and enjoy the space that they may have enjoyed as kids 40 years ago,” Womer Benjamin said.
One resident from Streetsboro, Ashley D’Angelo, 23, said she remembers going to the lake as a child with her grandmother, and how much she missed it as she got older.
“I just remember missing it so much, and then to see [the city] giving it back to the people who grew up around it, and have those memories, it warms my heart so much,” D’Angelo said.
Sharing D’Angelo’s opinion on the project, Aurora resident Leanne Karrigan said she was excited to hear the city of Aurora had decided to purchase the land and give the public access to the lake.
“I think it’s a great idea for the city to purchase the land, and the fact that they’re going to have a beach, space for swimming and non-motorized boating for paddleboarding will be great,” Karrigan said.
Karrigan also said the pool would be a great resource for the community given that not all developments in Aurora have pools.
Womer Benjamin noted the possibility of adding membership options for amenities, such as the pool and beach.
“It will be a public park — the lake will be public,” Womer Benjamin said. “We do expect that we will have some kind of membership options for some of the use privileges, such as the pool and maybe the beach that we hope to construct.”
With these new public amenities, it’s possible that the Aurora Parks and Recreation Department will have to add some additional staff dedicated specifically to this park, the mayor said.
“Once specific amenities are designed, we will carefully explore every feature to ensure safe, proper management,” Director of Aurora Parks and Recreation Laura Holman said. “We do expect we will eventually need additional staff to support our priority of providing safe, well-maintained spaces.”
Some residents believe the city is financially responsible and can afford to purchase, renovate and maintain the land. But not everyone agrees, including Aurora resident Dougas Tabbutt, who wants to keep the city accountable for its past promises and not prioritize luxuries until community needs are met.
One thing he said to be addressed is making sure this project is financed responsibly, meaning the city does not take funds from more critical projects within the city, Tabbutt said at the last city council meeting.
“I think that the government should focus first on necessities before amenities,” Tabbutt said. “It just concerns me when the government wants to get into projects like this, especially when they mentioned looking to compete with private enterprise by doing things like a restaurant.”
But he’s not against the idea altogether. While Tabbutt has concerns for both long-term cost and competition with local businesses, he believes the city adding another park in the area is better than putting infrastructure on the land.
“I am excited about the potential of the features because as a resident I’d love to use the lake, and I’d love to see something pretty there, other than buildings,” Tabbutt said.
Melissa Lupton is a member of the Geauga Lake Improvement Association, a nonprofit which was deeded to the houses on Geauga Lake about 100 years ago, meaning the homeowners in Geauga Lake and Old Reminderville collectively own the association.
The organization also maintains the upkeep of the lake and surrounding land while also giving lake access to homeowners.
Lupton declined to comment on behalf of the organization, saying she would wait until after city officials have time to address the association’s concerns.
However, at a recent city council meeting, residents representing the association provided public feedback saying the city needs to address what safety measures are going to be taken to protect the privately owned properties along the lake.
They also mentioned making sure the city’s property does not impact private property, and asked about how the project will be funded.
Overall, however, community feedback has been positive, and Womer Benjamin and Holman said they see the project as a way to preserve this property and provide the community with more green space.
“There are so many opportunities to make this [land] a beautiful attraction in our community,” Womer Benjamin said. “We’re restoring a beautiful park area with a natural spring fed lake, and we’re protecting that beautiful land from housing developments.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article reported that Aurora City Council had authorized the purchase of the property. However, the vote is postponed as negotiations between the city and the property owner continue.