National park’s presence key to Peninsula’s identity, but also fuels challenges


By Robert Higgs - cleveland.com



Shops line the north side of Main Street in the downtown of tiny Peninsula on the Cuyahoga River in Summit County. The village bills itself as that “Gateway to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park,” but the park’s presence also presents challenges.

Shops line the north side of Main Street in the downtown of tiny Peninsula on the Cuyahoga River in Summit County. The village bills itself as that “Gateway to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park,” but the park’s presence also presents challenges.


PENINSULA, Ohio – This tiny village of fewer than 600 people is facing an existential crisis, at the heart of which is the very asset that makes it a unique Northeast Ohio destination – the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Among the nation’s most popular national parks and widely considered a gem of the region, Cuyahoga Valley will soon expand its footprint, thanks to the recent sale of a 207-acre golf course in the village. Park officials say the property is an important part of the park’s long-term plan for improved public access and habitat restoration.

But the park, by law, is tax exempt. And the golf course land amounts to 14% of the village’s taxable property.

In a town where the full tax burden is carried by about 240 households and 15 small to medium businesses, Peninsula officials recently found themselves opposing a deal designed for the greater good – to advocate, instead, for the long-term survival of their village.

A blessing and a curse

Peninsula bills itself as the “Gateway to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.” Portions of the 33,000-acre park cover more than half the village, and thousands of people visit the town each year as a result of that proximity.

In the heyday of the Ohio and Erie Canal in the 1800s, the town was an inland port that supported several hotels, taverns and mills.

Now, visitors are drawn to the remnants of the canal, the quarries that provided stone for the locks, and hiking and biking trails that are part of the national park.

Those visitors helped make Cuyahoga Valley the seventh busiest national park in 2020.

“Being in the middle of a national park is both a blessing and a curse,” said Village Councilman John Krusinski. “We have a lot of Catch-22s.”

A lost opportunity

High on that list is the fact that the village must bear the responsibility of maintaining infrastructure that supports thousands of visitors drawn to an attraction that doesn’t pay taxes.

To help offset the tax burden on residents, the village had hoped for a shot at converting the former Brandywine Golf Course, spanning Akron-Peninsula Road, into a money-maker. They hoped a private developer could improve it, boosting income and property tax revenues.

But in October, the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park swooped in and bought the land, supported by individual donors and several foundations. More than 190 acres of the property will ultimately be transferred to the National Park Service.

The conservancy is the park’s official friends group and philanthropic partner. It offers cultural and educational programming, co-manages the park’s volunteer program and operates park retail spaces.

But the group’s agenda to support the park clashes with Peninsula’s needs.

“They’re no friends of the people,” Krusinski said.

The deal to transform the golf course into more tax-exempt parkland so irked the village and Woodridge schools that both approved resolutions criticizing it.

The Village Council, in its resolution, accused the national park of reneging on a decades-old promise that it would not purchase land within the village’s borders. Krusinski said national park service officials made the pledge during public meetings in the 1970s when the forerunner of the national park, the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area, was being organized.

Pamela Barnes, a spokeswoman for the national park, said she was unaware of what may or may not have been promised 50 years ago.

“I don’t have any record of that,” she said. “I can tell you there was no formal agreement.”

Park officials say they hope to work with surrounding communities on planning access and programming that are consistent with the park service’s goals but also are considerate of the surrounding communities, Barnes said.

A first round of community meetings already was held. Another is planned in the coming months.

Hindered growth

A growing national park and increased public access theoretically could strengthen Peninsula’s tourism industry. But even that progress would be hindered by infrastructural problems that the village can’t afford to solve.

“The problem is nobody wants to come in and develop when there’s no water or sewer,” Krusinski said.

The community is under pressure from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to build a sewage treatment system to comply with the Clean Water Act. The village is working with Summit County and the state to find options, said Mayor Daniel R. Schneider Jr.

With no central water service in the village, water must be trucked into town each day to keep cisterns full at businesses and residences.

There’s been talk of developing a water system – perhaps connecting with nearby Hudson’s service. But at this point, it’s an idea that still requires much studying, Schneider said.

Each of those projects would cost millions to complete — money the village doesn’t have.

One hope is that the village could use some of the more than $105 million allocated to Summit County from the American Rescue Plan Act, Krusinski said. Another possibility is funding through the recently signed federal infrastructure package.

Other barriers

But water and sewer aren’t Peninsula’s only impediments to attracting and retaining economic development.

With the village landlocked and surrounded by the national park, finding developable land is difficult, Schneider said.

General Die Casters, a machining company that formed in Peninsula in the 1950s, moved much of its production staff to a new plant in Twinsburg in 2015 because Peninsula lacked space for the company to expand and, of course, lacked water and sewer systems.

Schneider said he’s now working with another employer in town who wants to add several jobs, but may have to move the company if it cannot find adequate space.

It’s a classic conundrum for villages on shoestring budgets, said Kent Scarrett, executive director of the Ohio Municipal League — one found across Ohio where about 700 of 900 municipalities are villages. And those financial troubles are deepened by state funding cuts, such as when Ohio cut allocations through the local government fund under Gov. John Kasich, Scarrett said.

Rising tax burden

The fear is that without additional revenue, taxes could rise so high that residents would leave.

Mayor Schneider noted that the property taxes villagers pay to the town, Woodridge schools and Summit County have climbed 25% in recent years, more than in any other community in the county.

Newer residents have tended to be more affluent – the median income in the village topped $106,000 in the 2020 Census. But Krusinski fears long-time families – those that have been in the village for generations — might ultimately be forced out by rising taxes.

Worse yet, they might vote to dissolve the village.

If that were to happen, Peninsula would still exist as part of Boston Township, but it would no longer be an independent village, an identity it has held since the 1850s.

Shops line the north side of Main Street in the downtown of tiny Peninsula on the Cuyahoga River in Summit County. The village bills itself as that “Gateway to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park,” but the park’s presence also presents challenges.
https://www.limaohio.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/54/2021/12/web1_20211204-AMX-US-NEWS-BLESSING-OR-CURSE-NATIONAL-PARKS-1-PLD.jpgShops line the north side of Main Street in the downtown of tiny Peninsula on the Cuyahoga River in Summit County. The village bills itself as that “Gateway to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park,” but the park’s presence also presents challenges.

By Robert Higgs

cleveland.com

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