By Michele Murphy
When Sheffield Lake residents Debbie Suarez and her husband returned home from vacation in 2013, they were shocked to discover a building project underway on Lake Road at Shoreway Shopping Center on the city’s far west side.
She says they had not heard a word about it, although she admits the only paper she was reading at the time was a daily paper which rarely, if ever, covered Sheffield Lake.
She says she thought, “What in the world is going on and why aren’t people in the community aware? So I went to a council meeting to see what was going on.”
When she publicly asked council and the administration, she learned Speedway was tearing down its old station and building a new one. She was still bothered there was no easy way to learn what was happening in the city.
Mayor Dennis Bring invited her to come to talk with him. She recalls finance Director Tamara Smith and Councilman Steve Kovach joined in because, Suarez says, “All of them wanted to hear more about how I was feeling.”
“I heard story after story after story,” she continues. They told her they were swamped. They explained they were hampered from doing more due to a lack of funds. She adds, “I couldn’t believe all they were doing with so little money and so few people.”
“I thought, ‘Well, OK, I get it now.’”
Bring recalls that meeting, too. He says Suarez wasn’t particularly happy when she arrived.
However, their talk was productive and Bring asked her to help the city, where she has now lived for 35 years.
Suarez, a retired elementary school teacher, said “yes” and agreed to freshen the city’s website, working as a volunteer. Bring believes it has made a big difference in helping to promote the city’s image and get current news posted more quickly.
However, image was not the only thing on the mayor’s long to-do list for bringing Sheffield Lake back from an economic downturn that had caused many layoffs for residents which, in turn, caused city income tax revenues to plummet.
The ever-forthright Bring says he cannot focus solely on economic development. “Right now I need to concentrate on everything,” he maintains. Asked if the city ever had an economic development plan, the mayor says there has been little to nothing. He’s determined to change that. “We have to plan — just like the body, things wear out.”
City Council President Rick Rosso, who, like Bring, is a lifelong Sheffield Lake resident, could only recall one plan, and that one was completed nearly 20 years ago when John Piskura was mayor. Rosso says it led to improvements residents said they wanted including creation of the city’s boat launch and Lake Beach Park.
He says he is “pleased Dennis (Bring) is starting the momentum to update the plan,” adding it will fall to the city’s Planning Commission to play a key role.
Priority No. 1: Infrastructure
Whether already established or considering Sheffield Lake, Bring says businesses need to feel confident there is a sturdy infrastructure.
During his tenure as mayor, he and services Superintendent Patrick Hastings have successfully secured federal and state grant money to supplement city funds to repair and replace numerous aging sewer lines and pump stations and repave roads across the city.
Last year, the city completed a major sewer project on Devonshire. This year, they are working on Lake Breeze and they have already applied for additional grant funds to replace sewers and repave Abbe Road in 2018 or 2019.
There is no one in Sheffield Lake who would like to move these projects ahead faster than Bring himself. He says when residents do not see progress, they may think nothing is going on, which he says could not be further from the truth.
Hastings and Bring, often guided by law Director David Graves, not only pushed for infrastructure improvements, but have worked on park improvements, completed installation of remote-read water meters, and purchased lightly used equipment that can double for road repairs or snow plowing. They were even able to purchase equipment that enabled them to restore citywide leaf pick-up last fall for the first time in nearly two decades.
Shoreway Shopping Center
The city currently owns Shoreway Shopping Center, although Bring and Rosso say it was never the city’s intention to keep it.
Rosso recalls the days prior to the construction of I-90 when a lot of traffic came through town. Those drivers supported many businesses, including those at Shoreway.
“It was always fairly full,” he says. Those were also the boom days for the steel mills and
shipyards in nearby Lorain and auto plants in Lorain and Avon Lake.
Then things began to change. Rosso says the shopping center was “beginning to show its age.” Former mayor John Piskura pushed for the city to take it over.
Rosso says that was made possible when the minority owner of the center donated their share of ownership to the city.
Eventually, the city took on full ownership of the center.
They even had a potential buyer step forward, according to Rosso, but that was just before the economy cratered in 2009.
The center still has an anchor grocery and drug store as well as five or six small businesses.
Rosso says he wants to stress the center does not receive even one dollar from the city’s general fund.
He says, this many years later, there is still misunderstanding among some residents about that. “It’s all from rent. Zero dollars come out of the general fund to support the center.”
Bring says he hopes a potential buyer may be attracted as a result of the infrastructure and other improvements the city is making, and has made, in recent years.
Building confidence in a one-time “gem”
Suarez acknowledges, “There was a lot of negativity in this town for a long time.” However, she believes social media has helped link residents to others who are positive. “I think people are now much more aware and that has been a huge impetus for community involvement and better awareness of what is going on and how to help.” She says people have started to challenge those who are negative, thus tamping down some of their negative posts.
Rosso says he can recall when Sheffield Lake “was the place to be.” He says he believes one of the city’s challenges is “finding the model that fits a small community.”
Bring says “the city is a lot like Bay (Village),” although he adds, “We’re still looking for Sheffield Lake’s identity.”
He has “a strong vision about moving this community ahead for the future,” but acknowledges the importance of getting residents “on board,” knowing some are reluctant to see too much change. Bring believes, however, “It’s important that residents come to understand that, as the city grows, their property values increase.”
Hastings believes there are a lot of good things happening, and ways for people to get involved. He is optimistic that, as the city plans for the future, it will figure out how to take advantage of being a largely residential community on the lake, with all the recreational opportunities it presents, and encouraging an array of businesses to complement that.
The people are the asset
If you ask Rosso, he will tell you Sheffield Lake’s biggest asset is its people. “Local people show up in support” of local activities, citing as examples an annual baseball fundraiser held in honor of his nephew, the work of the Civic Pride Committee and local Girl Scouts.
Retired teacher Suarez and other resident-volunteers began a six-week summer arts program for youth at the Joyce E. Hanks Community Center that continues to this day. She says she met a number of like-minded women via Facebook and other social media who were eager to help.
With the success of the summer arts program, volunteers, including Suarez, formed the Sheffield Lake Civic Pride Committee. They have held a number of free community events including an Easter egg roll, Halloween decorating contest and Christmas tree lighting. They also participate in Pride Day, which is a citywide cleanup day and nod to the environment.
Suarez says local businesses have been very supportive of Civic Pride’s work by providing donations for awards, supplies, food and other needed items. She says she has walked into a small local business, not knowing the owner, but asking for help and has been delighted with their responses. “Small-business people handed it (cash donations) to me right then,” she says. “Local businesses support local people and local people support them. That is the beauty. We help each other out.”
Rosso agrees and maintains, “They are loyal to local businesses.”
Craig Lewis, owner of Erie Outfitters on Lake Road, is another long-time resident and business owner who believes the business owners of Sheffield Lake can be their own biggest boosters.
Given that the city is only 2.5 square miles in size, and most of it is fully built-out with homes, Rosso and Bring acknowledge there is not a lot of land for development.
City Council and the administration have worked together, as Bring puts it, to “get things in place” to encourage business and community development.
The city is currently recruiting resident volunteers to serve on the Community Reinvestment Area Housing Council. The council works in support of efforts to encourage commercial or industrial businesses to either build or expand in the city. Those businesses can become eligible for tax relief.
Residents also are encouraged to apply for a position with the recently established Economic Development Advisory Board. The board will study economic development opportunities for industrial, commercial, residential and recreational activities and advise the administration on potential opportunities. They will also recommend ways to market the city to outside business interests as well as ways to meet the needs of current businesses. (Visit http://www.sheffieldlake.net/ for details on applying).
Bring says, “We don’t need to look over the fence. We can be our own little gem in our own right.” For that he says, “People need to know more about what is available in our little city.”
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