Just as soon as a paving machine begins to put down asphalt for a new Cleveland Metroparks trail, eager park visitors begin to follow.
“I want to tell people they may burn their shoes and to let the trail cool,” says Sean McDermott, Cleveland Metroparks chief planning and design officer. “But seriously, there’s an incredible demand for interconnected, off-road systems. When all our trails connect, it will create a sophisticated system of urban trails. It will literally transform the region, city and neighborhoods served by the trails.”
Cleveland Metroparks is using Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants and other funding to construct five trails and a new bridge to fill in the missing links of the trail network. The completed 6-mile, 10-foot-wide Valley Parkway Connector Trail will make it possible “to ride your bike uninterrupted along the Emerald Necklace from Rocky River Reservation in Lakewood to the Towpath Trail in Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Brecksville,” says McDermott, adding the TIGER project is a $16.5 million investment in Cleveland.
Transformation and investment. Those two words have been important concepts ever since visionary William Stinchcomb first proposed a metropolitan park system to Cleveland City Council in 1905. Today, with 18 reservations, eight golf courses, a nationally acclaimed zoo and 2,188 acres of new parkland acquired over the past 10 years, Cleveland Metroparks is one of Northeast Ohio’s most cherished and vital assets.
“The success of Cleveland Metroparks is a reflection of strong leadership and teamwork across the organization,” says Cleveland Metroparks CEO Brian Zimmerman. “Our department chiefs are incredibly passionate about the work they do because they understand the impact and value enhancements have on our guests and the community.”
Time to Explore is Cleveland Metroparks’ new umbrella campaign that will help visitors navigate the over 1,000 free programs, amenities and benefits the park district offers, according to Kelly Manderfield, chief marketing officer. Partnering with Cleveland Clinic, the park district also urges Northeast Ohioans to “Get outdoors, get active, get healthy.” (Think tobogganing at The Chalet at Mill Stream Reservation, hiking Sulphur Springs in South Chagrin or golfing at Sleepy Hollow at Brecksville Reservation.) And to complement the new overall campaign, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo has a new logo: Securing a future for wildlife.
“We have been doing a lot of conservation work here and internationally for a couple decades. And, we also recognize that some people ask about the value of zoos,” says zoo Executive Director Chris Kuhar. “We decided to put conservation at the forefront of our branding. We want the message of conservation to be inspiring and positive. Too often the narrative can be depressing — talking about fewer animals of a species. We want people to come to the zoo and be involved in a way they never have before. A million people come through our gates every year, and we want them get excited about conservation.”
Asian Highlands, the $4.5 million exhibit that opened in June, is the zoo’s most recent visible commitment to that goal. Four endangered species, including red panda, Amur leopard, snow leopard and takin (think of a yak-like animal) live in four connected habitat areas and “tell the conservation story as well as a cultural aspect,” according to Kuhar.
“We are a very African-centric zoo. To add beautiful Asian animals as well is very exciting to us,” says Kuhar.
Zoo expansion and reservation/trail acquisition all cost money, of course. The Cleveland Metroparks has an annual budget in excess of $150 million. The district is funded primarily by real estate and personal property tax in Cuyahoga County and Hinckley Township in Medina County, as well as charges for services, grants, donations and the nonprofit Cleveland Zoological Society. Cuyahoga County voters have consistently supported park issues, and real estate surveys show one of the biggest reasons homeowners buy or stay in Northeast Ohio is the park district. Living near a park has been proven to provide physical and mental health advantages.
Cleveland Metroparks Chief Operating Officer Joe Roszak says the district always attempts to “stretch tax dollars” and make acquisitions wisely.
“Acquisition is part of our mission for conservation,” says Roszak. “Sometimes it’s the little pieces, like trail connectors, that are hardest to get, and people wonder why we bother. But, by connecting these pieces of property, people have access to reservations and trails.”
Some acquisitions make big news and serve not only as “a pretty park,” but to enhance quality of life. This year Cleveland Metroparks was awarded a $4.15 million grant by the Ohio EPA to conserve 73 acres of green space, including wetlands, which connects to the South Chagrin Reservation. The preservation of this land will help water ecosystems.
Cleveland Metroparks runs the gamut from those quiet, natural areas to fun, boisterous locations. Those include: Merwin’s Wharf located in the Lakefront Reservation along the Cuyahoga River’s Irishtown Bend (think Tuna Sliders and Seared Salmon); e55 on the Lake (patio dining on North Marginal Road) and the Emerald Necklace Marina, a full-service recreational boating facility with a gift shop, fuel deck, bait and tackle store, and cafe in the Rocky River Reservation.
Occasionally, people will ask why the Metroparks is “in the restaurant business,” and Roszak explains the parks have always really been in “the customer service” industry.
“And this way we have complete quality control. All of our properties have been profitable,” says Roszak, adding that park districts all across America see Cleveland Metroparks as an innovative leader from which they can learn. “Even the restaurants can have an educational side. I was at Merwin’s Wharf once when a big freighter went by. All of the kids ran to the patio to watch and then went back to their tables. I heard parents talk to them about what a freighter is and about Cleveland being a port city.”
The entire park district itself is like a connector trail, bridging the historical to today’s world. The new, approximate $2 million Euclid Beach Pier is a tribute to the old pier that once was a much-loved part of the former Euclid Beach Amusement Park that operated from 1895 to 1969. Unlike the old wooden pier that was often pounded and destroyed by Lake Erie, the new, strong pier will rise 14 feet above the water and will be 315 feet long, of which 150 feet will extend over Lake Erie. Located in the Metroparks’ Euclid Beach Park, the pier will be unveiled in early 2019.
“The pier will curve to capture the view of downtown Cleveland,” says McDermott. “It will be absolutely beautiful and designed for universal use. We are extremely excited to bring a centerpiece amenity back to the park.”