The big event this Memorial Day weekend here in my hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio is the 31st annual Walleye Festival. There will be rides and entertainment, a parade through town, and a fishing derby for the kids.
As I watched the workmen setting up the various rides and kiosks down at the Waterworks Park yesterday morning, I couldn't help but ponder what has become of my town. For sure, the festivities this weekend will be grand family fun. Port Clinton - the self-proclaimed "Walleye capitol of the world" - no doubt will attract thousands of locals as well as out-of-towners to the festivities. All this is good, yet it still makes me wonder.
How a place chooses to identify itself says a lot about that place. The city fathers have chosen to make the name Port Clinton synonymous with a game fish, and for good reason. Sports fisherman swarm here from places far and wide to pursue the feisty walleye and their presence here puts a lot of bread on the table of any number of charter boat operations, tackle and bait shops, restaurants, etc. Yet, as you walk around town, and in particular the harbor area, just as there is so much that goes on here, there is so much more that does not.
Port Clinton has an undeniably beautiful harbor, but any any local will tell you, it's pretty much going to waste. Walk up and down Madison Street and its adjoining thoroughfares and see how many shops have been boarded up. Talk to any of the former owners of those now-boarded-up shops (if you can find them), or to anyone who has tried to make a go of it in town and they will tell you pretty much the same thing: the city didn't lift a finger to help them. No tax breaks or incentives. Okay, fine, a business should be able to make it on its own. But what bothers folks the most is the absence of anything in town to attract tourists on a day-to-day basis. For far to many of the hundreds of thousands of tourists who flock to the area, Port Clinton is merely a parking lot for those waiting to catch the Jet Express to Put-in-Bay.
One shop owner I spoke with a few summers ago, whose shop now sits vacant, told me downtown is dying because people have no reason to come here. This was due in no small part to the fact that the Jet Express had relocated from downtown to the west side of the lift bridge, reportedly because the city fathers, in their infinite wisdom, had refused them a proposed tax break for the construction of overflow parking at the waterworks park. The one constant that ran through our conversation was that, too often it seemed, the people in this town who call the shots make decisions based on what's good for a few and not for the long-term benefit of the community. If you don't think that's true, look at the 'blight' in the form of condos blocking the view of the lake in town. (I'm not against people having condos by the lake, but I think it's fair to ask how much of itself a town should give up for the benefit of the few who are only going to be staying here for a few months out of the year. Isn't that a discussion to have?)
All is not gloom and doom. There are folks here who care enough to want to change things. A nonprofit called Main Street Port Clinton (MSPP) wants to see Port Clinton revitalized. Reading their stated purpose on their website is to restore one's faith in small government again: "Main Street Port Clinton ... believes that revitalization is a comprehensive, incremental, self-help economic strategy that focuses on developing public-private partnerships to enhance community livability and job creation while maintaining the historic character of Port Clinton." Sounds pretty good to me. Check out their website and throw your support behind this effort. While you're at it, visit places like Goderich, Ontario or, for that matter, Huron, Ohio, just up the road, to see what a harbor town can be. There's nothing magic about it. Port Clinton has everything those towns have, except perhaps will and desire. Port Clinton can be a place like that; the people just have to want it bad enough. But don't wait too long because Port Clinton is on life support.
Long live the walleye.