easy living on a great lake
With an envious natural backdrop, Willowick, Ohio provides the infrastructure and amenities that equal a great lifestyle for its residents
You can tell a lot about a city by what it has in abundance. At the turn of the 20th century, Willowick, Ohio was known both as Willoughby-on-the-Lake and the Village of Willoughbeach—two names that conjure up visions of late sunsets and long days spent on the water. By the 1920s, it was a fully-fledged summer resort destination boasting an amusement park, a private golf course, and a smattering of cottages built on its eastern portion. Flash forward to today and you’ll find the community of Willowick, born and raised on the banks of the mighty Lake Erie, still holding on to those traditions sustained by Ohio’s north shore.
In 2019, the city of Willowick announced its selection of the Environmental Design Group of Akron to come up with the design for a lakefront connectivity and downtown redevelopment plan. Funded in large part by a Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA) grant through its Transportation for Livable Communities Initiative (TLCI), the $85,000 contract was awarded to the firm based on its extensive experience with waterfront development (they’re the brains behind the quietly spectacular Solstice Steps in neighboring Lakewood, and a lot of the concept design used along the Black River in Elyria and Lorain).
One of the challenges that remain for Willowick in its current iteration is that direct access to the lake—the city’s biggest asset, arguably—is still missing. With a new transportation and revitalization design in place, the City Council is showing its intentions, both in actions and dollars, to use the waterfront for public benefit and make an express statement about Willowick as a dynamic city with vast opportunities centered on its legacy lake.
“In my eyes, this all started back in 2012 when I was on the planning commission,” recalls former Mayor, now County Commissioner Richard Regovich. “We essentially threw out our old zoning map and put the new one up to a vote, which the people did accept gracefully. Four years later I became the Mayor, and I knew that access to the lake was going to be key, as it has been for many communities in Northeast Ohio. I applied for and received that TLCI grant and that allowed us to plan that lakefront property, which is a 22-acre site of which we currently own over 12 acres, to create that access. You know, our slogan is ‘Great Living on a Great Lake’, and I made it a mission to get more people to it.”
Serving as a bedroom community to Cleveland just 15 miles southwest down the I-90, Willowick (pop. 14,200) has very little industry, relying primarily on educational services, health care, social assistance, and retail jobs to keep the local economy running. “We do have a commercial retail section that we’ve been working on and is improving year by year,” shares current Mayor Michael Vanni. “We’ve got a bunch of great stores here that have been in business for a long time, Alesci’s, Cleveland Pizza, and Ace Hardware for example. And our residents are very good at supporting them. That keeps us afloat. But the flip side is it’s tough tax revenue, which is why the lakefront development project is so important—we’ve got to keep looking for ways to increase our tax base. As much as I love living in a bedroom community, there’s always a downside when things get tough.”
In the 1950s, a building boom took place in Willowick as young war veterans and their families moved to surrounding cities from Cleveland in search of affordable housing. This growth saw the opening of the Shoregate Shopping Centre in 1955 in the city’s west end, on what was formerly zoned as a golf course property. During its prime, Shoregate boasted a major department store (Federal’s), a Woolworth’s, a movie theater, and several smaller retail stores, but struggled with falling visitor numbers after the Northshore Mall was completed in 1971 in the city’s livelier east end.
“Around 2006, Rick Marucci of the Marucci Group bought what was formerly the western half of that aging shopping center, Shoregate,” mentions Council President, Bob Patton. “Rather than letting it go into disrepair, those various stores were condensed into half of what they were—which is, at present, more than sufficient—and it created this whole new neighborhood dedicated to single-family homes catering to families, like mine, who had kids and needed more space. That being said, when you look at big lakefront communities such as Chicago, and especially on the north side of Chicago, the nicest neighborhoods, the most beautiful houses, are on the water.”
So, that’s something that I thought we should do in terms of having a goal as a community. And what we’ve attempted in succession, Commissioner Regovich, Mayor Vanni, and I are to get local businesses into Willowick to create a presence and see new developments along Lake Shore Blvd.”
To that end, the Vine Street corridor project, which looks at connecting the Lake Erie lakefront through to nearby historic Downtown Willoughby, is exploring options for additional Lake Tran transit-stop locations and more robust bicycle-friendly roadways, as well as identifying areas where potential changes for land use could create a more harmonic development overall.
“The ultimate goal would be to make this a destination place,” Mayor Vanni says. “Where you can go to Downtown Willoughby, with their great shops, restaurants, and bars, and then head down through Eastlake, to all of their great shops, and then take Vine Street all the way down to Willowick to get on the lake. Because there’s nothing like this in Lake County right now, where you can shop, go down and see the lake, or even live on the lake. Once we get a developer on board, we’re hoping we can make it a mixed-use, with condos on top of commercial property. I don’t think it’s going to be a hard draw—Commissioner Regovich has already had those talks. And once this development comes to fruition, it’s not just going to help Willowick, but Eastlake and Willoughby as well.”
Included as part of the Master Plan for Vine Street are sustainable efforts incorporating green building and green space, to create an environment where residents can live longer, healthier lives. “We’re adding some bike trails, improving the streetscape, planting more trees,” Mayor Vanni notes. “Any new development that we invite to Willowick is going to be tailored to be as energy efficient and as green as possible. That’s just kind of where we’re trending.”
“We did a senior living facility on Lake Shore back in 2015 that achieved a Silver LEED certification,” Regovich offers. “We actually saw that a lot in our new build back before Covid. I think the pushback on that lately has been the availability of materials to get stuff done these days. If the federal or state governments were to offer incentives, we’d certainly encourage those kinds of things a lot more.”
The city is also in receipt of a $36,000 NOPEC grant to be used on “energy efficient projects in 2023”, according to Mayor Vanni.
Another challenge for Willowick to tackle beyond the lakefront connection and downtown revitalization projects is a sewer infrastructure undertaking that involves getting as much usable life out of its existing sewer network. “Not particularly attractive or exciting, but our city was essentially constructed a little over 50 years ago with that explosion of growth after World War II, and the time has come to manage the challenges that arise from an aging sewer system,” Patton explains. “The pipes are very expensive to work on and you don’t see them, but when you’re talking about infrastructure, that’s about as head-on as you can get.”
So far, Willowick has attacked sewer work in a piecemeal fashion, hoping to cut costs by lining the sewers rather than replacing the lines altogether. “It’s about half the cost and freeing up that budget has allowed us to focus on other projects,” Vanni says. “We are trying to get at least half a street done each year. The lakefront is definitely where the future is for Willowick, but I think in the present, the concerns lie with infrastructure. That, and keeping our safety forces top-notch, like they are right now. Our new fire chief has done an excellent job of keeping our shifts staffed, which is difficult to do these days, and our police department is second-to-none.”
Sitting at “the other end of the table” as acting Mayor, Vanni feels humbled by the opportunity to lead amidst the family atmosphere at Willowick’s City Hall. “Being involved on a more daily basis, and meeting everybody who works for the city, it’s just unbelievable the talent we’ve got here that I get to see now, day in, day out,” he says. “You know, now I understand why people choose to live their whole lives here.”
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AT A GLANCE
What: A vibrant city against a beautiful backdrop with modern amenities provided
Where: Situated in Lake County along the shores of Lake Erie in Northern Ohio