While they were building the Ottawa County Visitor’s Center on State Route 53, U.S. Representative Marcy Kaptur remembers a grain farmer who told her that a tourist center would never work there.
A few years later, the same farmer, who now makes and sells bird houses, said he sold every one he made.
That, Kaptur said, was because of tens of thousands of birders who arrived from across the world to attend The Biggest Week in American Birding Festival. She said more “branding” like that is needed to promote this region.
Kaptur, a Democrat who is running for re-election to hold down her seat on a redrawn Ninth District, faces Republican Joe “The Plumber” Wurzelbacher on November 6. Kaptur has served in Congress since 1983 and is the longest-serving Democratic woman in the history of the House of Representatives.
Thursday, she spoke to about 100 guests during an Eastern Maumee Bay Chamber of Commerce breakfast at Maumee Bay State Park. Wurzelbacher, who in 2008 became a subject of national debate after questioning then-Presidential candidate Barack Obama about his tax policy, turned down his invitation to attend the chamber event.
From the meeting room where Kaptur was speaking, guests can see the sun rise on the horizon of Lake Erie, which is where her early morning presentation began.
“I am constantly telling audiences that we live in the most arable place on earth here on the banks of Lake Erie — the most prolific of all the Great Lakes. And, I challenged the U.S. Geological Survey one time to tell me where outside here there is this much fresh water and this much arable land. The truth is, there is no other place,” Kaptur said.
“One geographer said, ‘Oh, it’s in Russia,’ and then he said, ‘Oh, there is no arable land next to water in Russia. Well, it’s in Africa. No, that doesn’t work, either, because there is desert around that.’ Yes, where this much fresh water and this much arable land come together, there simply isn’t a place. So, I feel especially grateful that we are endowed with the privilege of living right here in this precious place.”
She welcomed the redrawn district that connects Toledo with Cleveland, saying this is a chance to define a “brand” for Ohio’s northern coast.
“If you look at the whole Great Lakes, we have about a million jobs related directly to manufacturing, about 200,000 jobs related to tourism, we have about 120,000 in shipping, and more than 118,000 that are in agriculture, fishing and food production. Those are mainline areas for us to focus on, along with an investment of hundreds of millions of dollars that are going into the automotive sector here,” Kaptur said.
“There are some other areas where we have unmet potential. Cedar Point gets about 2.5 million visitors a year, Great — they are a really wonderful company. But Lancaster, Pennsylvania gets 7 million. Now why would that be?
“We have more environmental aspects, we have better food, we have more activities, and we have more artists — between Cleveland and Toledo we have 10,000 artists — but we don’t market them well. But Lancaster has Amish — they have a brand and people go there looking for it,” Kaptur continued.
“We need to tell the world, ‘Come to Lake Erie’s shore. Come here. Come to Toledo and Cleveland. Come to this corridor. But we do not have yet imagined a brand. It affects every single business. It affects real estate, if you are in the home sales business. It affects how we look at ourselves.
“And, one of the great things about the new Congressional district that has been drawn that takes me from Toledo to Cleveland now, and I’m getting this message all along the coast, is that we have a chance to change our image and to develop it. I want to issue a challenge to this chamber and to all the chambers and all of the business associations that exist along the lake—if we can strengthen that brand, it helps everyone.
“It isn’t just the job of Ottawa County, or Lucas County, or Erie County, it’s our combined effort together to create an image of an affordable Hilton Head, to create an image of an affordable Cape Cod, but how do we do that?”
Kaptur said despite being on one of the most used fresh water lakes in the world, tourism studies show the nation thinks about this area as a rustbelt community.
“We have so much more, but along Lake Erie’s coast, I hate to tell you this, there was a study done, and between Toledo and Cleveland’s museums, Cedar Point, and the Toledo Zoo, when people from the outside think about us, what do they think of?
“They are geographically challenged — they think of us as Iowa. This happens to me in Congress a lot — ‘Aren’t you in Iowa?’ The other main image of our region in national polls is we are the Cuyahoga River burning. Despite everything I’ve said this image lingers from 50 years ago.
“It’s very interesting that over in Sandusky the largest employer is Kalahari, which has actually turned our coastline into a 12-month recreation area. Recreation is one of the industries that are very important to us and we’ve only scratched the surface. We are nowhere near where we need to be.”
While she believes even more recreational opportunities need to be available along the coast, she boasted about the state parks and marshes that have been preserved along the Lake Erie shore.
“When you go along our coastline in Ohio from Cleveland to Toledo, which I do now almost every other day the way the district has been drawn, I look at what is west of Sandusky Bay and what is east of Sandusky Bay, and if I go to a community like Lorain, which is new to the Ninth District and I see how neglected their waterfront is compared to ours.
“I am almost always so proud of my home community because (the late) Barney (Quilter) had this vision and others, who you may have not have known, donated land along the lake. The original properties were donated by very wealthy people who thought more of the future than they did of their own endowment.
“What we’ve been able to do over the years have been to create almost the equivalent of a national park right here along the lake from Sandusky Bay west. We worked very hard to create wildlife refuges in Ohio, right here. It took people wanting to do that over several generations, and we created this perimeter with some of these special features.
“I know (Lake Erie Waterkeeper executive director) Sandy Bihn is working so hard on the lighthouse (Toledo Harbor Lighthouse Society and festival) and we have many people on the islands who have been working on research projects and doing all kinds of things to create a different image as to who we are as a region and to the rest of the nation, and to those who want to travel here.”