ODNR held a public meeting on July 8 to listen to ideas for the future of the Lonz Winery on Middle Bass Island. Individuals from all three of the Bass Islands attended the meeting and made many interesting suggestions.
ODNR director Jim Zehringer kicked off the meeting by saying his department was interested in evaluating all ideas, and committed to doing something significant with the winery when plans are finalized. “The key is that we really want to ‘wow’ people when they arrive, we want them to come over to Middle Bass for something big,” Zehringer said. The goal is to give Middle Bass a different image from Put-in-Bay and Kelleys.
Zehringer also said that the state needs a partner or partners interested in running one or more viable businesses at the winery. He hopes to have deals by late fall or winter. The governor himself could be involved in making the decision. The state has $6 million in the budget to renovate the winery in the 2015-16 fiscal years.
Participants in the meeting suggested many possible uses for the Lonz area including a restaurant, winery, museum for local or Ohio wines, art gallery, artist studios, performing arts facility, lodging, convention center, etc.
Some participants asserted that whatever is done needs to be big enough to make a family of four willing to pay the cost of a ferry trip to the island. From the point of view of island restaurant and lodging owners, it needs to attract so many new people that their businesses will not suffer net losses. When the Lonz Winery closed in 2000, business declined significantly for island restaurants, lodging establishments and ferries.
Jim Zehringer pointed out that whatever was done had to be in line with what was expected from a state park. It has to be family-friendly. However, the state does not want a national franchise sign hanging at the winery. One participant in the meeting observed, "At the same time, you don't want to build a mausoleum." Zehringer said that it would be possible to have a winery and restaurant that could serve wine. Peter Huston of Put-in-Bay suggested that there should be a long-term vision to create a place like Geneva on the Lake. A representative of Firelands Winery was present at the meeting. Firelands owns the Lonz Wine label.
The current ODNR drawings for the Lonz site date from 2012. They show the free-standing pavilion now under construction east of the winery. In the current winery space, they show a rooftop garden on the second level of the winery. The current Lonz Winery sign blocks most of the lake view from this garden. The current tower remains and appears at the back of the winery roof top garden. The site drawings show no indication of how the ground level might be used. This level includes wine cellars of the original Wehrle & Sons Winery, the largest winery in the U.S. in the 1860s and 1870s. Thus, the current drawings emphasize open rather than enclosed space.
Many participants had comments about space requirements and usage. . A group marketer pointed out that to attract large meetings to the island, there will need to be enclosed as well as open spaces. Jeff Koehler of the Put-in-Bay Gazette pointed out that any establishment requiring more employees on Middle Bass Island would have to consider building housing for them. Summer housing for an increased number of island workers does not exist. As far as the open-air pavilion is concerned, no islanders agreed with ODNR's statement that it would provide a waiting area for the ferries; the current waiting area on the dock is more than adequate and far more convenient than the pavilion.
One important idea didn't come up at the meeting. Much of the Lonz Winery site has a spectacular view of Put-in-Bay and Perry’s Monument. It is probably the most glorious view in the Lake Erie islands. After Niagara Falls, it may be the best view in all of the Great Lakes. None of the plans so far capitalize on it. The view from the rooftop garden is blocked by the Lonz Winery sign. The new open-air pavilion has trees in front of it. I personally think that any winery changes should capitalize on the great view.
ODNR is asking everyone with ideas or comments to submit them online at http://parks.ohiodnr.gov/comments.
The News-Messenger has also written an article about this event at http://www.thenews-messenger.com/article/20140708/NEWS01/307080028.
There's also a Sandusky Register article at http://www.sanduskyregister.com/article/ottawa-county/5859086.