Thursday, September 30th, 2010

Algae impact puzzling

Lake home sale prices, sales tax revenue rise

By Shelley Grieshop
Photo by Mark Pummell/The Daily Standard

Pictured are some homes in the Harmon's Landing area on the east side of Grand Lake. Some homeowners claim their property values have dropped due to the blue-green algae problem in the lake. Recent indicators say home values are on the rise, but officials admit more data is needed to make an accurate assumption.

The economic impact of Grand Lake's blue-green algae crisis is about as murky as its water.
Sales tax revenues in Mercer County rose 2 percent this summer over the same time period last year and recent lake-area home sales show overall property values increasing. However, officials say tourism has plummeted and lakeside businesses are claiming up to a 40 percent loss of income.
"Yes, businesses have suffered as a result of the lake issues this past year," confirmed Jared Ebbing, the county's economic and community development director who is helping some of the restaurant and bar owners seek financial help.
But things could be worse, he added.
"Even though the business outlook at the national and state levels remains sluggish and uncertainty remains, our local economy has been holding its own over the past year and remains resilient," Ebbing said, crediting the work ethic of the local workforce.
The lake's long-time algae problem escalated in July after the Ohio EPA issued its strictest advisory, warning the public to avoid all contact with the water. The foul-smelling, decaying algae blooms kept boaters, skiers and swimmers away from Grand Lake's shores most of the summer.
But despite the reported lack of customers at lakeside businesses, countywide sales tax dollars remain a positive sign. Since January, local spending has increased 3.8 percent over 2009 figures, county auditor Mark Giesige said this week.
"It (sales tax revenue) was up about $45,000 during the first half of this year," he added.
Some residents with homes near or on the lake claim their property values have declined due to the algae and have asked Giesige to re-calculate their home's worth. Many aren't happy paying real estate taxes they believe are too high based on their home's actual value.
But early data compiled by Giesige doesn't reflect an overall drop, he said.
"I can't say housing prices are down on lake-related properties," he said. "I'm still looking at it, still monitoring sales, so I'm not going to jump on the bandwagon until I have more data. I want facts to base my decision on."
Giesige reviewed information on all lake-area properties in Mercer County sold between July 6 and Sept. 16. The eight homes and their lots averaged a selling price 18 percent higher than the county's appraisal price, Giesige said.
One property sold for $73,000 more than the county's assessment, he added.
"I just don't think we've experienced that huge decrease in market value," he said.
Giesige admits that results from eight sales doesn't make a "trend" and he will continue to monitor the housing market. All county homes are scheduled to be re-appraised in 2011, he added.
Donna Grube, executive director of the Auglaize-Mercer Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB), said lodging income in both counties dropped 25 percent in July, compared with 2009 figures.
But perhaps the most telling sign is the decrease in the number of visitors to the CVB office along Edgewater Drive in St. Marys. In July 2009, approximately 700 people stopped by to pick up information about the area. This July - only 125.
"That's a big drop. A lot of those were campers and you know how empty the (state) campground was this year," Grube said.
Other signs around the county leave officials confused about the current economic status. Although Mercer County's unemployment rate has dropped from 9.4 percent in July 2009 to 7.1 percent last month, the local food pantry continues to serve a record number of clients.
"When we closed the pantry for the day today (Wednesday), our records revealed we had served 913 families this month - a record for September and another historical high month in CALL Food Pantry's history," said Tim Clutter, director of the agency in Celina.
The pantry has shattered records the last four months as the number of clients continues to climb, he said.
"We had 51 new families sign up to receive services in September," Clutter said. "If this recession is over, tell that to the people who need supplemental food."
Due to cuts at the state level, he's receiving much less food from the West Ohio Food Bank in Lima, he said.
"I really worry what's going to happen this winter," he added.
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