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Friday, August 27th, 2010

Too late for Regatta

Advisory change comes days before boating race would have happened

By Shelley Grieshop
CELINA - The boating advisory was lifted Thursday on Grand Lake - less than two days before the canceled Governor's Cup Regatta would have begun.
In a bittersweet move, the Ohio EPA late Thursday downgraded the lake's water quality advisory to a "toxin warning," allowing boats to again cruise Ohio's largest inland lake. People still are urged to avoid direct contact with the lake by swimming or waterskiing.
Although local and state officials are pleased with the latest advisory, it comes too late to resurrect this year's Regatta. Allen Baskett, co-chairman of the racing event, has mixed emotions.
"We're happy to see the advisory lifted," he said. "But I'm still extremely disappointed."
He believes the EPA - through inaccurate testing methods - "ruined our area" by misrepresenting the condition of the lake. Water samples were taken only from areas with heavy concentrations of algae, he said.
"We were never given a true reading," he added.
This year would have been the 15th consecutive year for the Governor's Cup race, which typically attracts dozens of hydroplane racers and about 30,000 spectators. Baskett said 58 boats attended last year and 60 to 70 were expected this year.
Instead, officials are concentrating their efforts on next year's hydroplane racing event when Celina will host the 2011 American Power Boat Association's World Championships. Boats from the West Coast and Canada are expected, Baskett added.
In place of this year's Regatta, a "Save the Lake" Musicfest is planned 1-11 p.m. Saturday at Lakeshore Park in Celina. Four bands will perform, food and beverages will be served and contests will be held to raise money for lake restoration projects.
Blue-green algae blooms - fed by excess nutrients such as phosphorus - have for years tainted Grand Lake. The state placed its first advisory on the waterway last year, warning people to limit their contact due to toxins produced by the algae.
Nearly 10 weeks ago, the state issued its strongest advisory yet after algal blooms caused a foul odor and left the water with mats of unsightly blue-green streaks. Lake visitors were warned to have no contact with the water; a local man who fell ill was deemed a victim of the toxins.
The loss of the Regatta on the lake's west end is a financial blow to many local businesses. Three area hotels told The Daily Standard on Thursday that more than half of their rooms remain vacant for this weekend. All rooms were booked last year during the race, they said.
Julie Fleck, co-owner of Bella's Italian Grille along West Bank Road in Celina, said the absence of the Regatta is a huge financial loss for her restaurant.
"That's thousands we're not going to see," she said.
Like other lake-area eateries with a bottom line impacted by tourists, Bella's was forced to tighten its belt this summer, Fleck said. She's grateful for the "locals" who continue to support them and hopes the upcoming Labor Day weekend ends summer business on a good note.
Donna Grube, executive director of the Auglaize & Mercer Counties Convention & Visitors Bureau, said she can't yet put a dollar amount on tourism losses this summer. However, studies show each tourist spends about $100 a day while in the area; the figure more than doubles for overnight visitors.
Grube fears the lake's water quality woes will make it tough to lure people back.
"I definitely think we are going to have to work hard to get visitors to come back to Grand Lake St. Marys once the water situation improves. Many people who have enjoyed our lake in the past but stayed away this year may have already found other places for their water recreation," she said.
She also believes there's a trust factor to consider. Some may be skeptical when officials deem the water safe.
"They believe the bad, but may not believe when the word is good," she added. "For them the proof will be in the pudding - or in the improved appearance of the water."
Pam Buschor, executive director of the Celina-Mercer County Chamber of Commerce, said it's great to see local officials making lemonade from lemons by organizing Saturday's Musicfest.
"They're taking a tough situation and doing something positive with it," she said "By making it a fundraiser for the lake, it shows we care and want to correct this problem."

Grand Lake advisory downgraded:
The advisory for Grand Lake was downgraded Thursday to a toxin advisory. Boating is now permitted, however the Ohio EPA recommends people still should avoid direct contact with the water.
Samples taken Monday at beaches on the west and east end and at the state campground continue to measure falling levels of algal toxins, the EPA reported. Microcystin levels range from 2.6 to 4.5 parts per billion (ppb), with the highest at the campground beach.
Anatoxin was measured at 0.3 ppb at the west beach and 0.2 ppb at the east and campground beach. Saxitoxin and clindrospermopsin were not detected.
Microcystin was 6.1 ppb at the Celina drinking water plant intake, but no toxins have been detected in the city's treated drinking water, the report noted.
More than two months ago, the EPA issued a stern advisory against contact with lake water after algae toxin levels skyrocketed to more than 2,000 ppb. The World Health Organization's recreational exposure limit is 20 ppb.
Additional online story on this date
CELINA - Every school district in the local area received a rating of excellent or better on the 2009-2010 report cards issued by the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) today. [More]
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