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Sandusky, home of Cedar Point, plans for a summer without amusement park visitors from around the world

Business owners shift strategy to capture more local tourists.

SANDUSKY, Ohio — Sandusky's waterfront features historic buildings refashioned with an eclectic mix of retail shops, pubs, wine and juice bars and restaurants.

Shoreline Drive, its welcome mat, is undergoing a massive makeover and nearly ready for a season of tourists fueled by Cedar Point Amusement Park, visible from almost anywhere downtown.

But with Cedar Point and other nearby attractions still shuttered by restrictions triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, the city is looking ahead to the possibility of a summer without crowds of tourists.

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“We’re expecting to see this very similar to post 9/11. That people will be looking for places close to home,” said Bryan Edwards, director of marketing at Ohio’s Lake Erie Shores and Islands, the region’s tourism bureau. “That people will be looking for places close to home that are affordable, and they can drive to and fortunately that region is this. So that’s what we have done here already – shifted our message from attracting visitors to informing locals about all there is to see and do.”

Cedar Point was expected to generate about $10 million in taxes this year, which is about 45 percent of the city’s budget. The region, including the islands, draws more than 10 million visitors annually, according to Lake Erie Shores and Islands' latest annual report. Sandusky City Manager Eric Wobser estimates Sandusky receives 5 million visitors.

William Barrett, bartender, at Daly's Pub downtown said that during normal times, the restaurant, which includes a patio, receives steady business during the week.

"The weekend nights would be very busy, very packed, very, you know, 'Hurrah,'" he said, mimicking customers celebrating.

Barrett said the pub attracts tourists from all over the country and international workers from Cedar Point. He said the pub has made changes to its layout to provide more space to patrons and meet health guidelines on social distancing.

With retail and some bars allowed to open Tuesday amid the pandemic, a new game plan is underway all over the city.  

“We are going to make every effort we can to ramp up our regional business a bit, the folks that have boats up here, folks in the Columbus, Toledo, Cleveland that just need that getaway, we are hoping we might get more of that,” said Ryan Whaley, owner of Paddle and Climb, a store that rents and sells recreation equipment and clothing. “You have something happening in Sandusky you never had before. It used to be you would go to Cedar Point and leave. Over the last five years or so, you have people who go to Cedar Point, spend a day downtown and then a day at the islands. That group that spends a day downtown is where we get a lot of our business and we are certainly going to miss that.”

Still offering kayak and paddle board rentals, but for now, the store is keeping its rock wall closed to reduce the potential spread of the virus.

Andrea Crawford, who owns two businesses downtown, including Dockside Café, a patio bar on the waterfront, remains optimistic. She's still planning to recruit employees to fill two shifts a day, seven days a week.

“I have no doubt that most, if not all, of the businesses in Sandusky will succeed,” she said. “Thrive – I’m not sure. But get through this, yes.”

Whaley, an entrepreneur who has invested in other downtown projects and moved back to Sandusky after working for years in Colorado, also thinks the city will come through the summer.  

“It’s going to take a hit, no question,” he said. “But Sandusky survived years and years of decline and poor leadership. It’s changed. We are not starting from ground zero. We no longer have dilapidated buildings, streets filled with potholes. We are not starting without a bike path or pier. We are starting with a great city.”

RELATED: Sandusky’s comeback threatened by pandemic and impact on Cedar Point

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