Renaissance Park spurs Geauga Lake redevelopment

After years of negotiations and failed proposals, Renaissance Park, a housing development, will replace acres of Aurora land formerly occupied by Geauga Lake and Wildwater Kingdom.

Ann Womer Benjamin in an October 21 Zoom meeting.

Developed by Pulte Homes, a subdivision of PulteGroup, Inc., the 246-acre development will consist of 125 ranch-style homes, 119 townhomes, and 64 two-story single-family homes. Houses are expected to be ready for purchase in early 2021.

The Cedar Fair property has been dormant since 2016 when Wildwater Kingdom closed. The amusement park closed in 2007, with many of its assets selling off to other parks. Despite being divided between Aurora and Bainbridge Township, Cedar Fair’s responsibility is to sell the land to potential buyers.

Peter French, Aurora City Council At Large (Photo: Aurora City Council)

“Aurora has been very interested in getting the land redeveloped,” said Ann Womer Benjamin, Mayor of Aurora. “[We] really wanted the land to be developed into a nice mixed-use development, and we worked very hard to get that accomplished.”

The land was rezoned in 2014, allowing for a mixed-use development that could lead to new opportunities in the area.

“One of the things it does have the ability to do is bring in commercial, retail, and entertainment customers into that development,” said Peter French, Aurora City council member At Large. “[Previously,] it was industrial or commercial land. About 80% or so voted to rezone the property to be mixed-use.”

Aurora City Council At Large, Peter French, on ownership of Cedar Fair land.

The land has been a hotspot for potential buyers. Meijer previously was in talks to purchase acreage on the property’s Bainbridge side, but discussions between the three parties ended before a deal was reached.

“To build in Bainbridge, you need water and sewer, and Bainbridge doesn’t have that on the Cedar Fair property,” Benjamin said. “We had been engaged for a while in negotiating a JEDD with Bainbridge. Those negotiations were broken off abruptly by Bainbridge, and Meijer canceled its contract.”

Bainbridge Township has had concerns over the lack of a master plan for the project. Bainbridge hoped for many creative ideas to come to fruition; however, it seems as though they are frustrated with the communication between the different parties involved.

Aurora Mayor Ann Womer Benjamin on Pulte’s new development, including public access to the lake.

A boundary line splits the project between Aurora and Bainbridge, which has created difficulties in project planning.

Jeffrey Markley, Bainbridge board of trustees

“You’ve got two different entities that haven’t agreed on things and are trying to approve of a planning project so that the synthesis between what’s going on so there’s a kind of harmony,” said Bainbridge trustee, Jeffrey Markley. “My biggest frustration right now is that we don’t have that kind of symbiotic relationship between the two communities.”

Markley, who is also a registered landscape architect, strongly expressed his interest in developing a site with entertainment that will also highlight Geauga Lake’s history, as opposed to just building high-rent lakeside apartments and big box stores. Plans such as supply sites for film crews and a boardwalk are two ideas that fell through.

The history of Geauga Lake as a family amusement park dates back to 1925. The park was open 82 years before it closed in 2007 when Cedar fairs purchased the property to eliminate competition from its neighboring park. Since 2007 efforts have been made to reconstruct the park, knowing it would no longer house roller coasters.

“From the start, we began to look at the zoning in that area, and through the administration and city council, we changed it to mixed-use,” said President of Aurora Historical Society and Aurora city council member John Kudley. “Bainbridge basically adopted the same mixed-use zoning that [Aurora] has, so a comparable development can go on their side.”

John Kudley, President of Aurora Historical Society and
Aurora city council member

Geauga Lake is now considered a historical site as of 2017, with a rich history dating back to 1887; attempts are being made from Aurora and Bainbridge to preserve the park’s history.

“There is 98 acres of the property that’s going to be given by Pulte to the city of Aurora to maintain as a park,” Kudley said. “The plan is to put trails in there and have some markers that recognize the history of Geauga Lake.”

Pulte homes since the property was purchased, has dedicated street names in Renaissance Park include “Dipper Way” and “Carousel Court,” meant to refer to former rides at Geauga Lake.

John Kudley on land ownership between the city of Aurora and Bainbridge Township.

“I had really hoped that the two communities would work together to create a master plan and develop it as one big project and share the revenue and celebrate the history of Geauga Lake and we really haven’t,” said Markley. “We’re not on the same page.”

Bainbridge has explained that they will focus on their portion of the development and let Aurora do the same.

“We have our own projects. We have about 350 acres, and we’re going to do the cool stuff,” said Markley. “I mean, my focus is not about putting up rooftops and calling it a day.”

Plans going forward do involve big box stores and market-rate apartments; however, they also have been in talks to salvage one of the buildings and turn it into a Geauga Lake museum.

“I’m not super excited about big box stores and apartments, but we’re going to welcome them to Bainbridge because what it’s also going to do is generate some revenue for that site, which is going to allow me to be able to build a museum,” said Markley.

Aurora and Bainbridge city lines split the Cedar Fair owned property, and with the help of a JEDD, they can further any projects that will be built on the property. The agreed-upon JEDD will make Aurora responsible for all sewer and water activities near the property and hold Bainbridge accountable for road construction.

Bainbridge Township Trustee Jeff Markley on the JEDD agreement between Bainbridge and Aurora

Included in the JEDD is also an ordinance that would allow Bainbridge, a township that normally cannot collect income taxes higher than the city Aurora to collect partial income tax and raise taxes at the same rate it charges Aurora residents.

JEDD’s (Joint Economic Development Districts) began being put to use in Ohio in 1993. They are a special municipal tax only seen in Ohio and can give rights to change taxes. A JEDD creates a partnership between a municipality and a township, with the goal of developing township land for commercial and industrial revenue.

In this instance, “All the JEDD does is guarantee that there’s sewer and water available to the site. It also allows us to collect some income tax from that, where townships ordinarily can’t charge an income tax,” says Markley.

Responsibilities

Nick: Ann Womer Benjamin Interview, Peter French Interview, Audio

Richard: John Kudley interview, JEDD history and JEDD explanations, Park history Infographic

Aidan: Jeff Markley Interview, JEDD explanation & Bainbridge development