VERMILION, Ohio — The 1909 Wakefield Mansion sitting at the top of a small hill in Vermilion, overlooking Lake Erie, might be ending one of its last weeks with one of the city’s best public views.
The city has a demolition contract out for bid to demolish the mansion, save the Vermilion Lighthouse nearby, and turn the plot of land into a green space that would complement plans to expand the beach area nearby.
The mansion and small expansion to the north used to house the Inland Seas Maritime Museum before it moved to Toledo.
“The concept was to preserve access to the lake for future generations,” said Vermilion Mayor Jim Forthofer.
He says the city raised $1.62 million around 2013 to buy the land and prevent it from being privately developed then.
“The condo builders and the restaurant builders were salivating over that piece of property but we got it,” said Forthofer.
Forthofer says only about 17 percent of Vermilion’s lakefront is publicly accessible, and the original goal was to use the existing mansion in whatever the land’s next chapter would be.
“The intention was to put something in there and that’s where we got a splash of cold reality,” said Forthofer.
Restoration consultants told the city that it would cost more than $3 million to restore the building and another $50,000 to $100,000 per year to keep it up.
“We have a budget, especially with COVID, that just breaks even,” said Forthofer. “There’s all kinds of things we can do but not if we’re chained to that building.”
The city’s plans
Vermilion is already moving forward with plans to expand the existing beach across Main Street from the mansion. That project will demolish one home to create more parking, build the first permanent restrooms, and expand the boardwalk to the sand for the 2022 beach season.
Where the mansion stands now, drawings show a proposed patio or gazebo with a stage and amphitheater seating.
Mayor Forthofer says the plans would be paid for through fundraising and grants.
At a time when small businesses across the nation are struggling because of decreases in business during the pandemic, Forthofer says this plan would capitalize on the many visitors Vermilion saw over the summer looking for something to do outdoors.
“Improving the natural beach, that is going to be a big draw,” said Forthofer.
Trying to save the mansion
Pushing back on the city’s plans is Ben Criss, some local small businesses, and Preservation Ohio, a non-profit that works to save buildings like the Wakefield Mansion.
“It seemed to me to be a shame to lose our history,” said Criss, while explaining his alternate plan for the site.
Criss envisions a children's museum in the current museum space. Outside, a new boardwalk along the water’s edge could be a gathering spot for performers and people looking to see a sunset over Lake Erie. Murals along the side of the old museum space would draw people in looking for public art.
“Nobody’s going to cross the street to see a green space or marvel at where something used to be,” said Criss, criticizing the city’s plan.
The diversity of attractions, according to Criss, would help bring more people to Vermilion, helping to boost local small businesses.
“Each draw brings more people, more people spend money, downtown businesses are struggling, this would help,” said Criss.
What also helps is Criss’ estimates for what he says his plan would cost. He says his back-of-the-envelope math comes out to about $2.5 million for the restoration, new landscaping, and boardwalk, much less than the city’s estimates. Criss says that amount could be covered by grants that Preservation Ohio could help secure.
“I don’t think it’s that far gone,” said Preservation Ohio Trustee Julie Rohl. “We try to identify grant sources. A lot of the main problems that are coming up time and time again with this property is the mold and asbestos.”
The city expects to choose a bid to demolish the mansion and museum space in March.
Criss is proposing postponing that demolition so that it can be put to a referendum vote in May, but that would require cooperation from the city that he isn’t likely to get.
Mayor Forthofer confirmed Friday through email that nothing has changed and that the plan is still to demolish the building in March. He says the goal is to have the demolition work done and heavy machinery gone by the time beach-goers start showing up in Vermilion when the weather gets warm.
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