BY D’ARCY EGAN
The Oak Harbor Development Group (OHDG) has embraced the Portage River and a variety of types of outdoor recreation as wonderful ways to improve the Village of Oak Harbor, grooming it to become a destination for fun-loving folks in the region, and beyond.
“It’s all about connecting Oak Harbor,” explained OHDG Committee Chair Mike Shadoan. “We’ve already seen that if we build it, they will come to Oak Harbor. People will shop in our stores, eat in our restaurants, paddle on the Portage River and bike and hike the rural landscape.”
Oak Harbor’s Village Administrator Randy Genzman and the OHDG worked with Ohio’s natureWORKS and the Land & Water Conservation Fund, a federal and local partnership with the National Park Service and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, to create the kayak and canoe launch and fishing platform last year behind Oak Harbor Hardware.
The intersection on Water and Locust streets has, on average, over 12,500 vehicles pass through it every day.
It didn’t take long for canoers and kayakers to discover the ramp, and start paddling the scenic Portage River. The Portage River Paddling Company, which had access to the Portage River in Port Clinton, 10 miles to the east, built a new location adjacent to the Oak Harbor access ramp, complete with dockage designed to let people easily get in and out of the self-powered craft.
The Riverfront District development is still in the formative stage, but it is easy to understand why Oak Harbor officials feel the crowds will come. The little village swells mightily in October when the popular Apple Festival weekend lures crowds, its population of 2,759 (2010 census) more than doubling.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources encourages hiking and biking trails and water trails. State and federal grants are available, especially from the Ohio Department of Transportation, to help build recreational facilities to encourage visitors.
“The biking, hiking and water trails are very important,” said Shadoan, to tie venues together. “They all rely on one another for their success. If there is just a bike trail, but not nice restaurants, gift shops or art galleries, there would be little to encourage people to stay very long in Oak Harbor.
“But we’re seeing growth, with new downtown restaurants like Hartford House, Evolve Riverfront Cafe and Patty Cake Bakery and recent improvements to Howie’s House of Brews. To help those businesses get started, we have entities like the Ottawa County Improvement Corporation able to walk through a business plan, help find employees and the working capital.”
Those are components that make a difference, and allow Oak Harbor to grow, said Shadoan, who puts his money where his mouth is. As a volunteer, he has not received a single dime for tirelessly selling Oak Harbor as a friendly place to raise kids and enjoy neighbors, attend dozens of meetings and plot and plan attractions alongside other faithful volunteers.
Also on the OHDG drawing board is improving Veterans Park, an established recreational area, and using walking, hiking and bicycling paths to connect the town’s public places. Veterans Park has baseball fields, a sledding hill and a Tot-Lot playground. Shadoan wants work with the village to add a fitness trail encircling the park, a fire pit and outdoor ice skating rink. The little-used tennis courts — the high school courts are much better — are presently being converted to a sand volleyball court.
“Improvements will create an increase in activity in the village. We want Oak Harbor to be a hub, collectively creating pride in our towns, and giving local businesses a boost. We want new airbnbs and places to dine and shop.”
Shadoan also mentioned ideas which would take advantage of the Ottawa County Fairgrounds, just a few miles up State Route 163 from Oak Harbor. A potential water trail access area is being considered for the fairgrounds, and more social events are being booked every year on its spacious grounds.
Helping to make those thing happen are the Ottawa County Active Transportation Plan, which provides a long-term vision for the development of a countywide active transportation network, the Ottawa County Park District, the Friends of Ottawa County Parks and the Portage River Basin Council.
Shadoan believes Oak Harbor can be a destination for recreation. The gently winding country roads along the placid Portage River lure motorcyclists and Sunday drivers from the west. The Portage River becomes a Mecca for paddlers and jet skiers in Oak Harbor, and can support boat traffic all of the way to Lake Erie.