Group seeks return of Girard lakes

GIRARD – A newly formed group called Sustainable Girard 2023 took to Monday night’s city council meeting hoping for officials to agree with a plan to re-open the upper and lower lakes to the public.

Though dozens of group members came out in support of a plan, officials refused commitment on immediate action.

Following impassioned speeches by several members of the group, Mayor James Melfi said the city just does not have the funds to warrant taking the steps necessary.

“We are out of fiscal emergency a year ago,” Melfi said. “We have about a balance of about $400,000 in the general fund. You can’t do a lot of expansion with that right now.”

Group member and Girard resident Andrea Peduzzi said Sustainable Girard will not stop pushing for action. She plans to contact the Ohio Department of Natural Resources on the issue.

“We were hoping that the city would back us on a plan, but obviously that isn’t going to happen,” Peduzzi said. “So, we’re going to reach out to ODNR. The city agreed to maintain these lakes, and we do not believe they’ve done that.”

Girard purchased the lakes for $2.5 million in 1995 in hopes of developing a water source, officials said. However, financial issues made necessary replacement of the lakes’ dam and other expenses impossible. The city fell into fiscal emergency in 2001.

Melfi said Girard was presented with three options to address the issues of the lakes.

“Rebuilding the dam was anywhere between $10-15 million,” Melfi said. “Repairing it was between $7-10 million and breaching was $150,000. We were in fiscal emergency. Where am I going to get $7 million when we’re $3 million in debt at that time?”

The city decided to breach the dam in order to satisfy ODNR’s mandate to secure the site, which essentially drained the lower lake.

“From that point on, we’ve had it closed for obvious reasons,” Melfi said. “We had to rebuild our city financially and get on our feet again.”

Melfi said the city has regained its footing by getting out of fiscal emergency a year ago, but the funding is still not there to warrant taking on such a large project.

“The facts are, we’ve been discussing these lakes for well over a decade,” Melfi said. “But, the facts are the facts and they haven’t changed. Thank goodness our fiscal situation has changed.”

On the other side of the debate, Sustainable Girard member Bob Williams says it is time to at least begin investigating the potential costs of re-opening the lakes.

The group’s first phase, according to Williams, would be to determine what exactly is needed to re-open the upper lake. He modeled Sustainable Girard after a similar group which has had success in Cleveland.

“If Cleveland can do it, why can’t Girard?” Williams asked. “Really, all (the upper lake) needs is this dam taken care of, the brush to be cleared out, parking to be added and protection added to the spillway. For the upper lake, it is a quick fix.”

Williams admits the lower lake is more of a project, but he said hiring an expert to assess how much it would cost would be a good first step.

Meanwhile, Peduzzi said more than 100 volunteers are already in place to help begin clearing brush around the lakes if they are given access to the now closed off areas.

“We have a number of dump trucks and volunteers ready to do it as long as we have the backing of city council,” Peduzzi said.

However, city officials explained the process is more complicated than just opening up the lakes to volunteers, citing liability issues among other potential problems.

“That lake is very large, very deep and very unsafe,” Melfi said of the upper lake. “We spoke to the insurance company today and they want to study what is on the bottom of the lake before they would even insure us. It would be a vast financial undertaking and not one that you can commit to recklessly.

“They can get on Facebook and say all these things, but someone’s got to pay for it. We’re not going to lay off police and fire to re-open the lakes for fishing. Not going to happen,” he continued.

Councilman Larry Steiner said he could see a compromise happening over the next year.

“I know the financial situation of the city, so I understand where the mayor and others are coming from,” Steiner said. “But, I would love to see that lake to get where you could take your kids out there.”

A possible solution, Steiner said, is having fishermen sign a release when they get permits for the upper lake.

“If everyone works together, I think it could even happen by next fishing season,” Steiner said.