THORNVILLE — It hardly seemed to matter that a cool breeze swept over Buckeye Lake last week or that bare, spindly trees along its banks still hinted of winter.

On the shores of the lake about 25 miles east of Columbus, people were looking to summer, and a busy one at that. After two disappointing boating seasons amid the dam-construction project, many lake-dwellers are hopeful the tides are changing.

Water this year will again be kept at 1 foot below the normal summer depth. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources announced recently that normal boating operations could resume this summer – and went a step further by lifting the speed zone that was in effect last year and limited towed water sports.

The water was to be kept at that level last year, but construction of a seepage barrier to protect the dam meant the spillway gates remained open until about Memorial Day, and the lake didn’t capture early spring rains.

Then a hot, dry summer meant that many boats, especially larger ones, never hit the water.

“They were a day late and a dollar short last year,” said Tracy Higginbotham, who owns Buckeye Lake Winery on the south bank with his wife, Laura.

He estimates that the lack of boating customers the past two summers resulted in losses of about 30 percent.

This year, the state closed the spillway gates on time – the traditional date of March 1, nearly two months earlier than last year.

For residents and businesses, that brings hope for a summer like those to which they were accustomed pre-crisis, or at least closer to it. Higginbotham and others are optimistic that they can recover some of the business that was lost.

“I hope to narrow that gap significantly, if not eliminate it,” he said.

Work to replace the nearly 200-year-old earthen dam is moving ahead of schedule and slated for completion in fall 2018. Officials initially estimated that the project wouldn't be completed until 2020, and then revised that to 2019. The second phase of the project – the construction of the new dam – is set to begin early this month. 

“Our progress enabled us to put the (spillway) stop logs in on time,” said ODNR spokesman Matt Eiselstein. “We’re really returning to normal more and more as the project nears completion.”

Papa Boo’s restaurant and bar along the north shore is increasing staffing, returning to the number of summer workers it had three years ago. The restaurant held open interviews all of last week for servers, cooks and runners in anticipation of a busy summer.

“We expect a very strong season this year, to the point where we’re making sure we are fully staffed,” said Papa Boo’s General Manager Jeff Craiglow. “We’re making sure that all positions are up to our level that we were before this even started.”

On the opposite side of the lake at Buckeye Lake Marina in Millersport, “Sales are through the roof right now,” said Tim Levacy, who helps manage the marina.

Excitement seemed to increase after word spread that the marina recently placed a 32-foot cruiser back in the water, a kind of vessel that hasn’t hit the lake in the past few years, said Dave Levacy, owner of the marina and a Fairfield County commissioner.

Workers have been busy in recent days, renting out dock space and getting boats out of storage at customers’ requests.

“They’re all excited about getting their boats back in the water,” said Dave Levacy, Tim's father.

Businesses are hoping to see more boats on the lake and to recoup the losses they’ve seen over the past two summers, but they’re rooting for their neighbors to succeed, too, Craiglow said.

“That’s kind of the novelty of Buckeye Lake,” he said. “People come out here to visit all venues, and we look forward to everybody being successful out here.”

jsmola@dispatch.com

@jennsmola