- Associated Press - Thursday, June 5, 2014

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) - Ohio is taking another look at developing a former Lake Erie winery that has been closed since a terrace collapsed there in the summer of 2000 and dumped dozens of people into an empty cellar, killing one man.

The state, which now owns the Lonz Winery property on Middle Bass Island, is seeking a private investor to come up with a plan for the site.

Ohio officials have floated ideas for years, suggesting the landmark winery be turned into a conference center, restaurant or museum. But little work has taken place at the winery and its century-old main building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

“It’s a wonderful piece of property,” said James Zehringer, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

The department turned to a private developer two years ago to make over a shuttered lodge in Burr Oak State Park in southeastern Ohio and now it wants to see the same thing happen at Middle Bass Island.

The state will spend $6 million to make structural and other improvements at the winery site, which already has been undergoing work to remove asbestos. “It needs a lot of work to make it viable,” Zehringer said.

The department is open to a wide range of potential uses for the winery, which could include going back to its previous use, Zehringer said.

It bought the winery and the surrounding 120 acres with plans to create a state park with cottages, hiking trails and a fishing pier.

While a marina opened three years ago and has brought back tourists, progress has been slow.

Chris Zeitler, who bought J.F. Walleye’s restaurant six years ago with hopes that the state would develop the winery site, said there have been many rumors about what would happen next door. Talk about a private developer coming in has been heard before, he said.

“It’s exciting to see they are working on the properties” he said. “Something needs to be done before it falls down.”

Middle Bass Island can be reached from the mainland by ferry, but there are only a handful of attractions and it’s much quieter than neighboring South Bass Island, home to Put-in-Bay with its party atmosphere and 1 million visitors each year.

The winery, which had been the biggest attraction on Middle Bass, still dominates the island’s southern shore with its distinctive stone walls and castle-like exterior.

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