Dan Martin looks out the windows of Lorain’s Rose Café at an ice-covered Lake Erie begging to thaw. It is a gorgeous March afternoon at Lakeview Park, and even in the frozen winter, the work of Lorain County Metro Parks is clear.
“I don’t believe there is a finer lakefront park in Ohio,” says Martin, director of the Lorain County Metro Parks. “Who has a rose garden with 2,500 roses in it? Who has a fountain that can shoot 70 feet in the air? People don’t realize how many historical markers are in this park, and the beach gives us a very public side. It’s all beautiful.”
As the ailing economy sends families scrambling to find substitutes for lavish summer vacations, Lorain County’s parks system, constantly improving and expanding, provides plenty of options for guests at minimal or no cost.
“You can go spend $50 to $60 on dinner, watch a movie, pay a baby sitter and drop $150 on a Friday night,” Martin says. “Or you can come out to the Metro Parks, ... have a family experience and walk away thinking,That was pretty nice.”
Lorain County Metro Parks, funded by a countywide property tax, sponsors and gifts, now includes 25 parks totaling more than 10,000 acres. This year, water trails debut for kayakers and canoers on Lake Erie and the Vermilion and Black rivers, with mile markers and signs pointing to restrooms and picnic areas.
The six-mile Vermilion River trail starts near Mill Hollow in Vermilion, while the six-mile Black River trail starts at Bur Oak in Elyria. Both end at Lake Erie.
For highly skilled canoers and kayakers, a 12-mile water trail is opening along the Lake Erie shore, with 10 to 12 marked pullout spots between Vermilion and Lorain in case of rough waters. (Kayakers and canoers must supply their own equipment, though Martin says he hopes to make rentals available beginning next year.)
But the most obvious illustration of the Metro Parks’ efforts and progress is the $3 million renovation at Lakeview Park. Since the regional park district took over the park’s operation from the city of Lorain in 2006, its beach has become the Metro Parks’ crown jewel.
The highlight of the beach’s new bathhouse is the Rose Café, which provides gorgeous views through a 19-by-42-foot window overlooking Lake Erie. The Rose Café, with a capacity of 150, is an intimate setting for breakfast, lunch, Sunday brunch and private evening events. The cafe was carefully constructed atop the same foundation as a bathhouse destroyed by a tornado in 1924. The red brick exterior replicates the original.
Below the cafe, the bottom half of the bathhouse features eight new family changing rooms with showers, along with a hot dog stand open in the summer.
The park has now become extremely popular for weddings: Between 40 and 60 were held there in 2008. They’re now scheduled far in advance. “If you’re a bride and you want a prime weekend here, you’d better be booking for 2010,” Martin says.
With the beach fixed, Metro Parks next tackled the water. Sand buildup had trapped stagnant water between nearby rocks and the shore, causing unsafe pollution levels. By removing the sand, the water is allowed to be “flushed” routinely back into the lake as the waves roll in and out. “We went from one of the dirtiest beaches on Lake Erie in ’05 and ’06 to now, where we think we’re the cleanest,” Martin says. Visitors to the park have increased from 300,000 to 400,000 per year to 970,000 in 2008.
Elsewhere in the Metro Parks system, 80 miles of asphalt and gravel trails are open year-round for bikers, hikers, walkers and baby strollers. Fly fishermen chase steelhead trout and kayakers paddle in the Vermilion River. Horse riders can trot through four parks designated for equestrian use. Bird watchers can spot 169 species at Sandy Ridge in North Ridgeville.
Plus, Oberlin’s Splash Zone, a 25,000-square-foot indoor and outdoor water recreation spot, is a $6-per-person alternative to the indoor water parks in Sandusky. Later this year, an expansion will double its size to roughly 50,000 square feet.
Even more is planned.
Next year, the Metro Parks will begin building an intriguing underground greenhouse in Avon, which will host lessons on gardening, cooking and landscape design, as well as nature centers and programs for children. And by 2014, one bike trail will connect Lorain, Elyria and Kipton, tying together 35 miles of existing paths.
“The park district has always responded to and recognized the changing trends,” Martin says. “Now, if you want to do something outdoors, if you can think of it, you can do it in the Metro Parks.”