CONNEAUT — A new facility in Conneaut, named in honor of an “avid” fisherman and state employee, will provide a safer and easier way to access a stretch of Conneaut Creek, experts say.

The Phil Hillman Conneaut Creek Access Area on South Ridge Road, a short distance east of Route 7 in Conneaut, debuted in April. The site was created by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Wildlife.

The site features a large, gravel parking lot designed to accommodate fishermen. It links up with a much larger parcel under the auspices of the ODNR’s Scenic Rivers program. The Hillman site will benefit both locations, said John Navarro, statewide access program administrator with ODNR.

“This location was brought to our attention by Matt Smith (northeast Ohio assistant regional scenic river manager), which owns the property adjacent to the creek,” Navarro said in an email. “The problem is the Scenic Rivers footprint does not provide for good parking and trail access to the creek. The purchase of this property helped improve both of these needs.”

Hillman spent 37 years with the ODNR’s Division of Wildlife, 32 years as fish management supervisor, according to the agency’s website. He is credited with having a “tremendous impact” on fishing in the state and establishing the “world-class steelhead fishery that thousands of anglers enjoy annually.”

Hillman died in July at age 62, according to an obituary published in the Akron Beacon Journal.

Conneaut’s Bob Best, a member of Friends of Conneaut Creek who also serves as Ashtabula County Metroparks board vice-president, said the site is a “memorial” to Hillman, whom Best worked with for many years.

Best said the location might be the first to bear the name of an ODNR employee.

The value of the project is the safe parking access it provides people who wish to cast a line into the creek. Many now choose to park along Route 7 near a bridge over the creek, which can be risky given the heavy highway traffic.

The Hillman Access Area abuts the Scenic River property and its trail that winds down to the water.

“It’s interconnected,” Best said. “It all ties together.”

Ironically, Hillman was the person who got the project rolling, Navarro said in an email.

“Phil brought this project to my attention back in 2014 as a great opportunity to increase access for steelhead fishing,” he said. “We started the real estate process in March 2015 and we closed on the property in July 2016. The site is now available for shoreline access.”

The Hillman Access Area comprises about six acres while the Scenic Rivers parcel, under the Division of Watercraft, approaches 28 acres, Best said. It features a mile of stream frontage.

Access to Conneaut Creek has become much easier over the years, thanks to the efforts of Metroparks and the ODNR. Several vantage points are available along the waterway that didn’t exist just a few years ago. Near the Hillman facility on Blakeslee Road is Friends of Conneaut Creek Metroparks, a 79-acre facility. Recently, a paved trail, suitable for patrons with disabilities, was put into place, Best said.

A few years ago, Metroparks acquired the Camp Peet facility in Conneaut adjacent to the Creek Road covered bridge. On the other side of the bridge is property in the hands of ODNR and a parking lot for creek visitors.

Metroparks is looking to expand its holdings along the creek, officials have said.

Public access keeps people anxious to reach the water on the right side of the law, Best said.

“Having public access provides more legal access,” he said.

Hillman deserves all the credit for the latest jewel along Conneaut Creek, Navarro said.

“This project would not have happened without the dedicated effort of Phil Hillman, who as an avid steelhead angler saw an opportunity and ran with it,” he said.

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