SANDUSKY, Ohio – In his nearly three decades in the travel and tourism business, Cedar Fair CEO Matt Ouimet has tried to steer clear of politics.
Two years ago, however, after a midsummer toxic algal bloom spread across western Lake Erie, Ouimet decided he – and the company he leads – had a role to play in advocating for a cleaner, healthier lake.
In some ways, it was an easy decision to make, he said, because no one argues against the importance of a healthy Lake Erie.
“When you talk to people, everybody agrees with you,” said Ouimet. “This is not a debatable subject.”
There is debate about proposed solutions, however, and whether there’s a need for additional government regulation over the farming industry. There’s also debate about where clean water should rank on state and national priority lists, as government leaders hash out tight budgets.
And that’s why Ouimet decided to lend his voice to an increasingly active group of northwest Ohio business and community leaders, who plan to keep pressure on government officials to heal the lake.
“I have a platform because of what Cedar Point means to Ohio,” said Ouimet, who heads Cedar Point’s parent company. “Maybe we can amplify the voice. Maybe we can be effective advocates and educators.”
Eric Wobser, the city manager for Sandusky, said Ouimet’s reluctance to speak out on political issues magnifies his message. “When he speaks, people listen.”
Earlier this month, Gov. John Kasich traveled to Sandusky to give his State of the State address. That same day, Cedar Point hosted a luncheon for members of the General Assembly, cabinet members and other government officials in the park’s historic ballroom. The main topic of discussion: Lake Erie.
Featured speaker was Jim Stouffer, president of the Lake Erie Foundation, a group that advocates for a healthy lake. In his speech, Stouffer, who grew up in Cleveland, recalled traveling to Cedar Point in the 1960s and swimming off the park’s beach – something he wasn’t allowed to do at home because the water was too toxic.
He asked, “What happens if I can’t swim off that beach? What happens if my children and grandchildren can’t swim off that beach? So I ask all of you, please, as we focus on the future: If you want your children and grandchildren to swim off this beach, then we need to work together to make it happen.”
Ouimet said he didn’t have an opportunity to speak with Kasich during the governor’s visit, but did talk to numerous high-ranking government officials, and reiterated Stouffer’s message.
A former Disney and Starwood executive who joined Cedar Fair in 2012, Ouimet said he’s been reluctant to get involved in political issues over the years.
“What we’re supposed to deliver is a place that is a respite from a complicated world,” he said. “We are not fond of being involved in political conversations.”
He added, “It’s probably a first for me. I’m not good at politics, but I am good at problem-solving. I do feel a stronger ownership in the Sandusky area, given our meaningful role in the local economy. I feel like we have an obligation to be a little more vocal than I normally would be.”
Located on a mile-long peninsula, Cedar Point is nearly surrounded by water, with Lake Erie to the north and Sandusky Bay to the south. It is the most resort-like of Cedar Fair’s 11 properties, with its waterfront location and numerous hotels.
Cedar Point’s history – the park celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2020 – may also have something to do with Ouimet’s decision to take a more active role on the issue of the lake, speculated Wobser.
“You don’t own Cedar Point, you’re a steward of Cedar Point,” he said. Similarly, he added: “We’re all stewards of the lake.”
In recent years, since Ouimet’s arrival, the park has made an effort to embrace its lakefront location, adding nightly summertime entertainment on the beach, investing millions to renovate historic Hotel Breakers and opening up additional lake views inside the park.
But Ouimet said his commitment to a healthy Lake Erie goes beyond his company’s bottom line. As he’s gotten older, Ouimet, 59, has started to think more broadly about the future and his legacy.
“This is our problem to solve,” said Ouimet. “Not me personally, but my generation. We need to own some of these challenges.”
Toxic algae in the lake has been a problem for years, but reached a low point in 2015, when heavy spring rains caused a massive early algal bloom. A mass of thick green algae surrounded the Lake Erie islands by early July; swimmers were warned against going in the water at public beaches along the western shore.
“That certainly got our attention,” said Ouimet. Cedar Point never closed its beach, but tested the water regularly.
Last year was much better for lake water quality. But Ouimet said sometimes reputational damage can be worse than reality.
When Ouimet travels around the country and tells people he lives and works near Cleveland, he frequently gets this response: Didn’t your river catch on fire years ago?
“People still remember the condition of the river more than 25 years ago,” he said. That’s why, he said, “We need to stay ahead of the game.”
That said, he knows there is no easy solution to the problem, which may involve additional regulations on the farming community, in Ohio and nearby states, to reduce phosphorous runoff into the lake.
“We’re not looking for an overnight solution,” he said. “There’s nothing important that gets done without some form of compromise on all sides.”
First, though, said Ouimet: “We all have to own it.”