New visitor center gives Cuyahoga Valley National Park its front door

For the first time in the history of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, visitors will be welcomed Friday, Oct. 25, to the 33,000 acres nestled along the Cuyahoga River between Cleveland and Akron.

The U.S. National Park Service and the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park will open the new Boston Mill Visitor Center, marking the first centralized location where visitors can orient themselves, discover the park’s features, and begin their experiences.

“This park deserves to have a central visitor center, and we’re so thrilled to have one,” says Deb Yandala, CEO of the conservancy. “Visitorship has been increased so much, and this is a great place to start their visits and be excited to get out and enjoy the park.”

Designed by Peninsula Architects, the new visitor center is housed in a two-story, 3,600-square-foot building built in 1905. It originally was the Cleveland-Akron Bag Co. before becoming a paper mill that operated there until the mid-1980s.

General contractor Regency Construction Services, based in Brook Park, broke ground in January 2018 on the $7.1 million project, most of which was raised through a philanthropic campaign by the conservancy. The remainder was paid for through a $1.6 million National Park Service Centennial Matching Grant.

The construction project included the historic rehabilitation of the main building to preserve its history and serve as the main visitor area. Inside, the center will help visitors locate the park’s many natural resources and recreation areas, history, and geography.

“It orients people to what to do, ways to show how they’re engaging with the park,” says Yandala.

Two adjoining buildings will serve as offices and restrooms, while an outdoor courtyard and pavilion will offer seating and park information that are always accessible. Akron-based Environmental Design Group provided the engineering services.

“It provides that front door to the park,” says Jennie Vasarhelyi, the park’s chief of interpretation, education and visitor services. “It’s a complicated park, geographically—we are one of 420 units in the National Park System, and each one is different. The visitor center gives us an easy way to decipher the park and serve as a welcome center.”

They have applied for LEED Silver status for the project, which is also fully ADA accessible, Yandala says.

It's at the heart of the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail, an area rich in industrial history and rife with natural wonder. Ohio's only national park, it's also one of only a handful in an urban area, Vasarhelyi says. The fact that the Visitor Center is opening on the 50-year anniversary of the Cuyahoga River catching on fire for the last time is a educational coincidence, she says.

“A lot of people come to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park because it is a national park,” Vasarhelyi says. “We want to [explore] what does it mean to be a national park in an urban area, what does it mean to be a national park on a river with pollution?”

In fact, the paper mill that once operated out of the building made efforts to keep the Cuyahoga clean by using artisan water and damming the creek, but the efforts failed. Today, the visitor center stands as a reminder, Vasarhelyi says.

“It wasn’t just Cleveland where the river was polluted—it was Akron as well,” she says. “We tried to use the Cuyahoga River pollution story as the beginning of the effort to clean up the river. It really is a 100-year-old story, an Akron-Cleveland story.”

They are using history to tell the story of the park, particularly the importance of environmental protection and respect, Yandala says.

This week, the conservancy hosted open houses at the visitor center for residents and donors. A total of 500 donors, including a $1 million donor, contributed to the fundraising. Yandala says the response has been “overwhelmingly positive. It’s really exciting to watch.”

A 96-year-old who was born and raised in the building was brought to tears by the restoration, Vasarhelyi says. So was another group of residents who walked over to see the new center. “They were just so emotional over the beauty that they saw.”

The public grand opening and ribbon cutting are set for 10 a.m., Friday, Oct. 25 at the Visitor Center, 6947 Riverview Road, Peninsula. Visitors should park at Boston Mills Ski Resort, 7100 Riverview Road. The ribbon-cutting ceremony will take place under the large tent near the parking area.

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.
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