Kelleys Island: Old and new

David Ervin and Knute Lahrs say a big part of their respective jobs is simply to help keep co-op members happy. Ervin is the only full-time HWEC employee stationed on the island, while Lahrs was the island’s representative on the HWEC board of trustees for 12 years.

Hop on a huge ferry boat, and after a 20-minute ride through the choppy Lake Erie waters, you’ll arrive at the idyllic Kelleys Island, about 4 miles north of Marblehead, Ohio, and the largest American island on the lake. The island is home to about 140 year-round residents, though the population swells to well over 400 residents and 5,000 tourists during the busy summer months.

An island is a place where folks can never take their electricity for granted, but Hancock-Wood Electric Cooperative has been up to the task since it merged with Lake Erie Electric Cooperative in 1967. Now is a time of change on Kelleys Island — at least in regard to its co-op.

The first change is an equipment upgrade: A new electric cable run from the mainland in December will ensure better reliability of electric service to the island’s members. But there are more personal changes as well, as the folks members recognized as the faces of the co-op have passed the torch to new representatives.

Because Hancock-Wood’s geographic situation is unique among Ohio electric cooperatives, it has a unique staffing setup as well. The island itself is one district, represented by a trustee on Hancock-Wood’s board of directors. One full-time co-op staff member lives on the island to handle issues that come up day to day.

Former trustee Knut Lahrs served on Hancock-Wood’s board for 12 years — his service came to an end at the last elections due to regulated term limits. Originally from Germany, Lahrs has been coming to Kelleys Island for 40 years and has been a full-time resident there for the last 20.

“The role of a trustee is looking out for members and to keep the members on Kelleys Island happy,” Lahrs says. “Being so far away from the rest of Hancock-Wood’s members, we have to pay particular attention to how the board’s decisions affect us.

“I’m always looking out for my island.”

Lahrs, 88, ran his own business in Cleveland for 50 years before he moved to Kelleys Island, where he operated a transfer station for the village. He now has a water-delivery service that he calls a “little business on the side.”

Ervin, Lars, Brian Terry, and Kevin VanDePerre helped oversee the project to install a new submarine cable from the mainland to ensure reliable delivery of electricity to the island’s consumer-members.

New trustee Brian Terry, elected last June, has been part of island life since he was a child and also lives there year-round. He’s one of the youngest trustees among all of Ohio’s co-ops and sees his role as a balancing act.

“The island is so small that community relations is one of the most important parts of the job,” says Terry, who manages Portside Marina and Dockers Restaurant. “I feel like my biggest job is to find a balance between the business of the co-op and maintaining good relationships with the members. I find myself bridging the gap.”

The co-op’s other bridge to its island members is the on-site staff, which also has seen a recent transition. David Ervin was assigned as the full-time lineman on Kelleys Island last September, taking over for Kevin VanDePerre, who was the sole lineman on the island from 2015 to 2018 and still lends a hand part-time.

The lineman’s primary responsibility, of course, is to keep the lights on — but it’s not the only job.

On call 24/7, Ervin says he has to be a jack of all trades, from running outages to being a handyman to assisting with logistics for the new 4-mile cable being installed. “I’m the only one here all the time, so I take care of everything, any issue that comes up,” he says.

VanDePerre elaborates on the responsibilities of the job: “The role really involves a lot of community involvement and public relations,” he says. “What you do to help our members is very important. I once overheard a member say that I had done more for co-op relations on Kelleys than had ever been done. That was a real honor.”

Ervin says the co-op is still evolving on Kelleys Island. “When the quarry shut down, the co-op lost a big part of its load, but they’ve gained back most of that through new residential service. The (service) is changing over from a commercial load to residential.”

However, he doesn’t see evolution coming quickly to the relaxed island. “They like to keep it slow here,” he says, adding that the best thing about being assigned to the island is the friendliness of the people. “The people — they’re the best thing.”