JEFFERSON — The Ashtabula County Board of Commissioners hosted a press conference on Thursday afternoon to discuss debt related to the Lodge at Geneva-on-the-Lake, and ongoing negotiations regarding the transfer of the lodge to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
A pair of provisions in the state’s biennial budget directed ODNR to enter into an agreement with the county to transfer the lodge to ODNR, in exchange for up to the total amount of debt related to the facility. A total of $13.95 million was allocated for the purchase, according to the legislation.
An extension of the Dec. 31 deadline included in the legislation was agreed to by both parties. The agreement stated that negotiations will take place between attorneys for ODNR and the county.
Commissioner J.P. Ducro, who is serving as the president of the Board of Commissioners this year, said the press conference was scheduled to discuss statements that had been made regarding the lodge debt.
Commissioner Casey Kozlowski said the lodge is a tremendous asset, and it should not be treated as a political football. Kozlowski said he believes the lodge is being used in a partisan nature. Kozlowski disputed claims that have been made that the lodge is profitable for the county.
Ashtabula County Auditor Dave Thomas said profits from the lodge are one source of funding used to pay for lodge debt, but the other sources, including bed tax funds, the $2 transfer fee and contributions from the Ashtabula County Convention and Visitors Bureau, Geneva-on-the-Lake and the Geneva-on-the-Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau, are tax dollars.
“They can be used, as they have been used for some years previously, for lodge debt, but they can also be used for many other purposes and opportunities,” Thomas said.
Thomas said it would be irresponsible not to act on the chance to relieve the debt.
“My understanding of the entire request is and has always been that we were seeking an appropriation to eliminate the debt, with the understanding that we have the opportunity to receive that, if we could negotiate an agreement that still made sense for the county, essentially, to keep things in place to every extent that was possible,” Ducro said. That includes keeping Delaware North, the company that currently manages the lodge, in place and avoiding penalties for breaking contracts.
Ducro said there is not a definite answer to how much the county could have to pay if contracts related to the lodge are broken.
Ducro said he wants to do everything in his power to keep the contracts in place to avoid that uncertainty.
“Any number is a bad number,” Ducro said.
There have been requests made to commissioners to walk away from negotiations with ODNR, Ducro said. He said the county would not be negotiating in good faith if they broke off conversations now, and doing so would damage the county’s relationship with ODNR and state legislators, but he is still committed to keeping things in place that have been beneficial to the county, and not terminating agreements.
Ducro said the transfer would free up potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars per year for the county. The county gets requests from various entities for economic development dollars, some of which cannot be given because of a lack of economic development money, he said.
Ducro said his main focus is assuring everyone that he is still committed to making sure the terms of the deal with ODNR are beneficial to the county, and that the county has the ability to walk away.
“That has never wavered, and I am still optimistic that we have the opportunity to have something like that happen,” Ducro said.
Commissioner Kathryn Whittington said her intention was and is to get debt relief for the lodge, and retain local control. Whittington said one meeting has happened between attorneys for ODNR and the county.
“So negotiations are still continuing,” Whittington said. “We’re still working diligently to come up with something that works for everyone, but is in the best interest of Ashtabula County residents.”
Ducro said there are lots of uncertainties in negotiations between the county and ODNR.
“There’s many aspects of this we still need answers to, and commitments from ODNR, to be agreeable with the things that we think are critically important,” he said.
Whittington said commissioners will be updated on the status of negotiations between ODNR and the county after the parties attorneys meet again.
Kozlowski said commissioners would rather have an agreement made sooner than later, but the negotiations are complex.
Commissioners should try to come up with the best deal for the county, and if they cannot, they should not make a deal, Ducro said.
“I think, at the end of the day, we’re either going to end up with things exactly as they were, or we’re going to end up with things almost exactly as they are, but with $14 million more in our coffers, from the state,” Ducro said.
When asked what would happen if commissioners enter into a deal they believe was good but did not work out in the long run, Whittington said the commissioners will not make a deal that isn’t solid.
“I don’t see how it could go wrong, if we’ve set it into ... a legal document,” she said.
Ducro said he wishes everyone could get away from an us versus them mentality. He said he would love to see the work group, which has been meeting regularly to come up with alternatives to the transfer, write letters to ODNR and legislators, sharing their concerns and asking for a favorable deal for Ashtabula County. The process continuing to be adversarial doesn’t help the county, Ducro said.
Ducro said the commissioners who created the lodge did one of the boldest things the county has ever seen, and it was a tremendous success.
“It is, in my mind, indisputable, the positive impact the lodge has had on our county,” he said.
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