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PROFILE: Wow, What a Thesis! It's Worth $132 Million

Matt Lones is not even finished with his master's thesis, and already, the development dreams that were the seeds of his thesis topic are becoming a waterfront reality along Lake Erie as the $132 million Bayfront Urban Revitalization Plan.

Date: 6/16/2003 8:00:00 AM
By: Mary Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos By: Dottie Stover and Matt Lones
UC ingot UC's Matt Lones, 28, is a typical architecture graduate student in that he's over busy with classes, projects and most of all, his master's thesis.  On the other hand, he's entirely  atypical in that the redevelopment ideas that sparked his thesis are already being made real as part of a multi-million dollar deal Matt helped pull together.   

Matt Lones in studio
Lones working in studio

As a first-year graduate student, Matt couldn't help but have ambitious designs for the abandoned 42-acre industrial site that he'd chosen as the subject of his thesis.  He'd picked a Sandusky waterfront property near to where his wife's family vacationed for his theorectical study on redevelopment.  But there was potential for so much more at this site where Sandusky Bay (on Lake Erie) overlooks Cedar Point, and Matt's enthusiasm was building.  He wanted to do more than "just academic" designs.  

Matt recalls standing amidst the derelict buildings along the lake shore one day.  With him was UC College of Business Administration alumnus Mike Will, economic development specialist for the City of Sandusky, Ohio.  Mike Will was giving Matt a tour.

Recalls Matt, “Mike said they were selling one of the buildings, the Chesapeake Building of 235,000 square feet, for $1.  I handed him a $5 and said, ‘Here’s $5.’  I said, ‘I can do it.’  He said, ‘You need to have the funds to redevelop it too.’  That slowed me down.  I knew I could do a development plan...The funding was another matter.” 

But not for long.  Matt, who had worked as an intern-architect in Columbus, Ohio, for four years before heading to UC’s prestigious architecture program, was talking to anyone he could about his dreams for redeveloping the site.  One day, Matt happened to be chatting at a family wedding about his proposals.  A local businessman was listening and offered to introduce Matt to a former Sandusky mayor who might have some contacts.

“So, began my professional contacts for the project,” says Matt, a resident of Worthington, Ohio, near Columbus.  “The former mayor put me in touch with city officials…They’d had difficulty in developing the site for years.  Sometimes it was conflict over the vision for the site.  Sometimes, it was money.”

Lones with a front-page article in the Sandusky Register
Lones holds a front-page article from the Sandusky Register about his project

Another acquaintance introduced Matt to S. Robert Davis, co-founder of Wendy’s and a businessman with a long string of multi-million dollar developments under his belt.  After their meeting, Davis told Matt to arrange a meeting with the city in connection with the venture.  Matt did so, and Matt’s master’s thesis design proposals then began to move from theoretical pipedream to a very solid construction.  In fact, the project has since been praised on the front pages of the local daily, “The Sandusky Register,” for reinvigorating “the community’s dream for downtown development.” 

Matt had started his thesis research and designs last August.  He and Sandusky officials met with Davis that fall.  Through his development corporation, Davis then agreed to fund the $132 million proposal – the Bayfront Urban Revitalization Plan – which had started as Matt’s pre-thesis project and was later refined by an architectural firm.  Construction may begin as early as this year, according to Mike Will.   

The series of derelict buildings and docks will be transformed into:

  • 350 condominiums with a boat slip for each condo and views of the Cedar Point roller coasters and fireworks
  • retail, professional and medical services, restaurants, convenience stores, a theater and fueling stations – a one-stop center for those on land or boaters out on the lake
  • a 360-boat marina for the many Ohio residents from other cities who keep boats on the lake
  • an indoor water park and hotel to draw visitors year round
  • a pier with a boat launch for transportation to and from Cedar Point
  • a boardwalk that wends through the entire development, inviting the entire city to explore the site
    current industrial site in Sandusky
    Part of the current waterfront industrial site in Sandusky

Matt has found that the whole process, especially the business side, had its challenges and rewards.  But one thing he’s grateful for is the fact that his partners in the City of Sandusky and entrepreneur Davis never looked down at him as “just a student.”  Recalls Matt, “Bob Davis never looked down on me.  We’ve visited lots of sites [in researching current water parks, marinas and developments], and he always asks me, ‘What can we do with this space?’  No one in Sandusky ever acted like I was too young.  They gave me respect.  Mike Will said he always listens because he never knows someone’s background.  He said that if he’d looked at me differently, this project might never have happened.”

current industrial site in Sandusky
Part of the current waterfront industrial site in Sandusky

Sandusky’s Mike Will first toured the waterfront site with Matt to help the ambitious architecture student with his thesis.  Will says he’s taken a lot of people through the site.  “When touring, you often get a sense if someone’s ideas will go anywhere or not, or if they’re biting off more than they can chew.  Really, in this case, I didn’t expect too much, and part of me wondered about taking the two hours to do the tour.  But it took so long because Matt was asking a lot of questions.  I could tell he had something specific in mind,” recalls Will.  He adds that in looking ahead, it’s expected that this project will serve as the catalyst for more lake-front redevelopment around Sandusky.

And when Matt looks ahead to when his student days in UC's College of Design, Arcitecture, Art, and Planning are over, he simply wants to stroll the Bayfront Revitalization’s  boardwalk.  He says, “The best part will be to see all this realized, to see people being helped by this, to see people using it.  I’ll be thrilled to death to see the boardwalk.  It’s giving Sandusky a destination.”


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