Avon Lake mayor wants resort declared blighted

MorningJournal.com/March 28, 2004
By Mike Sakal

Avon Lake -- When the Aqua Marine Resort and Restaurant opened as the Aquamarine Swim Club at 216 Miller Road in the mid 1950s, it was one of Lorain County's brightest gems in the rural hinterlands that now are home to upscale housing and commercial development.

But time has taken its toll on the once pristine resort, an area landmark that featured an indoor swimming pool, a restaurant and 240 rooms.

Only the 18-hole, par three golf course leased by Phil Gilbert remains in full swing, and just 150 of the rooms at the resort remain open, according to a manager at Aqua Marine.

Now Avon Lake Mayor Rob Berner said he is exploring possibilities of having the deteriorated 57-acre property owned by the Maharishi Spiritual University, a North Carolina and Texas-based holistic medicine sect, declared blighted -- so the city would be able to take it by eminent domain.

The complex has had building, fire and health code violations as well as criminal activity involving drug dealings in the recent past, according to Berner.

Ken Miller, chief building inspector for Avon Lake, could not be reached for comment.

Berner said that the city is compiling a list of the building's alleged violations to present to Gould and Associates of Cleveland, who likely will be conducting a blight study of the property.

In September 1999, Avon Lake city inspectors discover 68 problems from the fire prevention officer, 38 different building code violations from the chief building inspector and 12 different problems from the health department, according to an article in The Morning Journal.

Two items in Miller's report -- standing water on the floor of the boiler rooms coupled with electric power and leaking pumps in the indoor swimming pool -- were noted as ''dangerous,'' according to the report.

Only the Aqua Marine Resort property would be blighted, not any of the other surrounding buildings or property, Berner said.

''We're looking at our options right now,'' Berner said yesterday. ''The last two or three years the property conditions and property maintenance has gone down, and we're trying to improve what's been going on in Avon Lake.''

''The whole general area is complaining about the condition of the facilities and overall property maintenance,'' Berner added. ''Some of the rooms are uninhabitable.''

And to make matters worse, Berner said it has been ''impossible'' to get in touch with anyone at the Maharishi Spiritual University to inform them they need to start making improvements that were discussed two years ago, Berner said.

''When I met with the heads of Maharishi about two years ago, they said they wanted to turn the resort into a total mind, body and spiritual complex where people could live,'' Berner said. ''They never did, and, when I've tried to get in touch with them, they've been non-responsive.''

Representatives of Maharishi could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Attorney Will Herzberger of Cleveland, who Berner said represents Maharishi, could not be reached for comment.

Residents who live along Miller Road, echoed Berner's sentiments.

''Do improvements need to be made to Aqua Marine?'' asked Robert Klimkowski. ''That's an understatement. The place is a pig pen. It used to be a beautiful place, but now it's a dump. The place is falling down, and nobody is taking care of anything, and there's a lot of strange people staying there. I know they've had all kinds of problems with the law there.''

''There were all kinds of junked vehicles in the parking lot without plates, but those are gone,'' Klimkowski added. ''The police do what they can, but they can only do so much. We are concerned. I just don't think there's much you can do with the building at this point.

''It's a prime piece of property, and the city has talked about building a recreation center. That would be a perfect place to start.''

Andrew Smith, a three-year Miller Road resident, said that he believes the site has potential.

''I believe there's much potential there, but it's not being done,'' Smith said. ''In the three years I have lived here, there have been no improvements. I'd like to see improvements, but there seems to be a lack of visitation there.''

Edward Kaspar, who has lived on Miller Road with his wife for 47 years, said he'd like to see somebody buy the Aqua Marine property.

''It's been up and down and every which way the last five or six years,'' Kaspar said. ''I just drive by it, and don't look at it. The golf course is nice, but I don't know what goes on inside. It'd be nice if somebody bought it.''

The Lorain County Family YMCA, which operated a facility out of Aqua Marine, pulled out in late 2002 because Maharishi wouldn't make the needed repairs to the building, Berner said.

YMCA officials could not be reached for comment last night.

Aqua Marine's swimming pool also was closed several months ago, the restaurant no longer is in operation, and only about 150 of the 240 rooms are being used, said Bill Rosenfelder, general manager of Aqua Marine since February.

''The city has their reasons for whatever they want to do,'' Rosenfelder said. ''We had hoped to improve the facilities ... such as resurfacing the parking lot''

''I haven't been aware of the things the city has discussed with the owners for improvements because I haven't been here very long,'' Rosenfelder added.

Avon Lake City Councilman Mike Stanek, who represents the city's 4th Ward on the west side where Aqua Marine is, said that there haven't been as many complaints of the condition of the property lately as there have been in the past.

''Over time, people have just become resigned to the situation over there because they're used to it being that way,'' Stanek said. ''But becoming resigned to something like that isn't good either. There's just no ability to get in touch with the owners of the property. Even the manager said he doesn't know how to get in touch with the owners.''

Stanek went on to say that the property is worth more than the city could afford to pay, and they would not consider the site for a recreation center or YMCA.

William Gould of Gould and Associates of Cleveland is putting together a price proposal package for the cost of a blight study of the property, Berner said. Berner said he met with William Gould on Tuesday but said he doesn't know yet when the firm's survey would be completed.

Gould is the same firm conducting a blight study in the central Lorain neighborhood near the St. Joseph Community Center to determine whether it can be blighted so the city would be eligible for state and federal grants to clean it up.

If it is determined that the Aqua Marine property can be blighted, Avon Lake City Council will consider whether to move forward with declaring it as such so the Maharishi Spiritual University can have the opportunity to make the improvements or sell it, Berner said.

Berner said that if the city were to acquire the Aqua Marine property, which is close to the new Smuggler's Cove condominiums, it has no plans for it.

Jim Spevock, who co-owns Nautical Lanes bowling alley with his brother, Joel, the property adjacent to Aqua Marine, said he'd like to see resort ''go in a positive direction for the community and family fun recreation.''

Previous efforts to have the area declared a nuisance by the Ohio Attorney General's office have failed, Berner said.

Among the problems and incidents that have plagued Aqua Marine, according to past articles published in The Morning Journal:

In October 1990, 22 people including three firefighters were treated at St. Joseph Hospital after fumes from an ammonia coolant leak from a defrosting refrigerator affected them.

A $29,349 bill for outstanding bed taxes and penalties had to be paid in 1991 after Lorain County Commissioners referred the delinquency to the county Prosecutor's Office for collection so the Lorain County Visitors Bureau could benefit from the revenue.

The check from Aqua Marine owners initially bounced, and the debt was later paid in cash installments.

In March 1999, Avon Lake police broke up a party that attracted more than 100 high-school students who came to the resort after a dance at Lakewood High School. Inside the hotel, police found 50 to 75 teenagers and alcohol, according to a police report.

In December 1999, six ''hazardous conditions'' were found at Aqua Marine during an inspection by the state fire marshal. Exit and emergency lights and smoke detectors were found in need of repair, and it was discovered that guests were breaking city rules by staying longer than 30 days at the hotel.

Cooking appliances and extension cords to connect those appliances also were found in some rooms, violating the law.

In March 2000, former Avon Lake Mayor Vince Urbin issued an ultimatum to Maharishi-owned Aqua Marine to shape up or ship out for not paying a $10,226.79 sewer and water bill. Aqua Marine agreed to a payment plan.

In May of 2000, Avon police executed a search warrant at the Aqua Marine Hotel and confiscated marijuana, drug paraphernalia, a .22-caliber pistol with five bullets in it and more than $1,700 in cash, netting two arrests.

Avon Lake police initially stopped a car traveling 54 mph in a 35 mph zone and learned the driver, Ralph McCourt, had a warrant for his arrest in West Virginia for conspiracy to commit breaking and entering, according to the search warrant. They had learned he was staying at the Aqua Marine Hotel and obtained a warrant to search his room, according to the story.

Maharishi had paid about $1.2 million for the property in 1993 when they bought it and have been trying to sell it for $3.5 million, Berner said.

Last year, business partners Richard Erb and Franz Bauer wanted to purchase and renovate Aqua Marine for $3.4 million, but the deal fell through, according to published reports in The Morning Journal.

According to the Lorain County Auditor Mark Stewart's office, the property is valued at $2.6 million, but Berner said it wouldn't be worth it because of the deteriorated condition it is in.

If the city were to acquire it by eminent domain, it would be required to pay fair market value for it, but Berner isn't sure what that amount would be.

Aqua Marine was opened as the Aquamarine Swim Club by Charles W. Foster in the mid 1950s. The site formerly was a popular hot dog stand, according to published reports.

Foster, who was a prominent Avon Lake resident, later developed a treatment for psoriasis, a skin ailment, and sold his discovery to a Philadelphia pharmceutical firm for $60,000 in 1966. When Foster died of a heart attack in 1969, the treatment he discovered was under consideration for distribution on the national market.

Ivan Roberts, a former mailman turned prominent businessman, who used to sweep the floor of his uncle's general store in South Fork, Pa., as a youngster, became the second majority owner of Aqua Marine soon after he had invested $15,000 in Foster's venture in 1960.

Roberts and his wife, Rosemary, owned 55 percent of the business.

During Aqua Marine's heyday under Roberts, it had 250 employees, a $600,000 payroll, attracted visitors from all over the United States and Canada and was touted as the ''most glamorous thing to ever hit Avon Lake.''

Roberts sold Aqua Marine to Arizona-based Ramada Inn in December 1968 for $6 million. The sale was approved by more than 96 percent of Aqua Marine's shareholders, according to a shareholder who attended the meeting.

During this time, it became known as Aqua Marine-Ramada Inn.

Aqua Marine also saw new owners in August 1985, when partners Rex Davis of Dayton and Jackson Tsang of Los Angeles bought it for about $6 million, according to a story in The Morning Journal.

In October 1986, partners William Duffy and Arthur Ziegler Jr. of Pittsburgh purchased Aqua Marine for $7 million and expanded the resort to include more rooms to cater to people seeking getaway weekends.

In 1990, William Ellis, an Atlanta-based entrepreneur, purchased Aqua Marine for an undisclosed sum and restored the resort's original sea horse emblem to its marquee and installed a fountain in one lake.

Maharishi bought Aqua Marine in 1993.

However, Aqua Marine never fully returned to the splendor it was remembered for, Councilman Stanek said.

''That place was a real jewel at one time,'' Stanek said.

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