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The Cleveland Metroparks Has More Money Than Ever, Six New Lakefront Parks and a CEO With a Grand Vision. It Also Has Plenty of Problems.

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Cleveland Metroparks CEO Brian Zimmerman is the only parks director in the state of Ohio who calls himself a CEO. He's also, by many authoritative accounts, a really nice guy. He's now on the windward side of 40, which means he's only a former administrative wunderkind, but he's still sort of childlike, as head honchos go. Something about his goatee seems aspirational. He speaks with a slight rasp, a pinch of farm boy sprinkled on his authority. He prefers khakis to pinstripes. He commutes from Strongsville, where he lives in a development constructed on former Metroparks land.    

Zimmerman was heralded, back in 2010, as something of a visionary. Hand picked from a national pool of 60 applicants to direct the parks, he'd been the operations guy at the slightly larger and more recreation-centric park system in Milwaukee. The local media reported success stories of Zimmerman saving Wisconsin taxpayers money.

He immediately took to his leadership role in Cleveland. His was a "smooth" transition. He was "affable," and "charismatic," but also "careful." He had a certain way with people. He communicated with rangers and custodians as easily (and as readily) as he did with corporate consultants, of which, as you'll see, there have been legion.

The three-member board of commissioners for the Metroparks, civic and business leaders all, just haven't been able to say enough about what a tremendous executive and all-around guy Zimmerman is. And he (along with his PR team) certainly rustled up the requisite support for the passage of the Metroparks levy in November.

Remember that levy? It was Issue 80, one of three countywide levies that passed by wide margins last month. The port authority renewal and health and human services hikes were also on the ballot. The Metroparks levy represents a significant hit: For each $100,000 of home value, property owners will now be assessed $86.63, an increase of more than $30 from the previous millage. That will net the Metroparks just about $73 million in revenue every year (up from the $53 million they receive currently).

And most people tend to think that that's A-Okay. The park system is one of our most valued treasures, after all — we don't call it the "Emerald Necklace" for nothing — and spans 23,000 acres of trails, forest, golf courses and, recently, beaches. Nearly 70 percent of voters in Cuyahoga County and Hinckley Township asserted their willingness to foot the bill.

The Metroparks marketing team over at ourparksareworthit.com insisted that the additional revenue was necessary to "maintain and strengthen" the quality of the park system. Voters were being asked for "a small increase" only after "tough choices" had been made about cost reductions across the district.  

Sue Allen, the Metroparks director of communications and media liaison, said commissioners made the decision to make a "slight increase" so that the parks could operate "at the level residents expect."

But the natural question now that the levy has passed is: What exactly are they going to do with all that money?

The answer, because of the levy's broad language — no longer exclusively related to the upkeep of "forested lands" — is pretty much anything they please.

Lakefront then, lakefront now

It seemed that one of the major reasons for the levy increase was the acquisition of six lakefront parks which had been formerly under the control of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Recall that the state's "stewardship" was more or less the opposite of stewardship, so the Metroparks takeover in June 2013 was considered a significant upgrade by local stakeholders and any man or beast who'd set foot on the lakefront in the past seven years or so. (Those parks, from east to west: Wildwood Marina, Villa Angela, Euclid Beach, Gordon Park, East 55th Street Marina and Edgewater.)

Their upkeep had been an ongoing study in disrepair, an example of just how far apathy and limited resources could take you, maintenance-wise — not very. "Wildlife" had much less to do with the relevant flora and fauna at the sites in question and much more to do with the animate funk issuing forth from diapers, condoms, fish carcasses and ring pops — always ring pops — reposing on the beaches and forgotten trails. The sand wasn't even recognizable as sand. A single naturalist, exiled to loneliness by the state, was in charge of what passed for programming at all six locations. One was tempted to bid loved ones farewell before entering the bathrooms, such were the barbarisms and uncertain destinies therein.  

Once the state relinquished control, though, an immediate transformation occurred. The Metroparks deployed maintenance crews to the beaches, picking up trash and clearing scrub five to seven days a week, as reported by Chief Operating Officer Joe Roszak, Zimmerman's former colleague and chum in Milwaukee. The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District loaned machinery to till and beautify the sand. Rangers on foot and horseback patrolled the grounds. Downtown Cleveland, the view of which had been obscured by shrubbery at Euclid Beach, was visible for the first time in 25 years, according to Councilman Mike Polensek. He represents the Collinwood neighborhood and walks his dog at the eastside parks several times a week.

Moreover, the acquisition of the lakefront parks symbolized a physical connection of the Emerald Necklace, a topographical clasping of sorts. It's something that Brian Zimmerman has been touting as a goal since he arrived. He and his deputies want, and have always wanted, to bring Clevelanders to the lakefront.

And they intend to do so by any means necessary.

Back in September, while campaigning for the levy, he said that he thought the lakefront was a key piece not only of the Metroparks' future, but the region's economy. (Zimmerman was unavailable for an interview for this story.)

"One of our goals is: What is it going to take to attract and retain high school and college graduates?" Mr. Zimmerman said while gazing at downtown Cleveland from Edgewater Park (printed in Crain's on Sept. 15). "We're really trying to fulfill that competitive advantage that I think Cleveland has versus any other industrial city in the country."

That type of rhetoric, especially on the campaign trail, made it seem as though levy dollars might be directly involved in capital improvement projects at the the lakefront parks. The Metroparks inherited $14 million from the state as part of their deal with the Department of Natural Resources, and Sue Allen said that that money will be allotted over the next three years.

As for the levy money?  

"That constitutes almost two-thirds of our operating budget," said Allen. "It's used to preserve and protect the whole park district."

Allen reiterated earlier comments by commissioner Debbie Berry that the levy increase was necessary, in part, because of property devaluation and cutbacks from the state. But that bogus logic suggests that a tax increase would be compensatory, just to keep the park district at the same level at which it already operates. As it stands, even with property devaluation, the net gain is $20 million, right?

"I'll have to check my numbers," said Sue Allen.

And is the pursuit of capital improvements at the lakefront parks a reason for the levy increase? Scene asked the Metroparks for the record.  

"No, that's not the case," Allen said.  

The Historic Euclid Beach Conundrum

Euclid Beach Park is brittle and blustery in December. A single playground, of the scale and simplicity you'd typically see in a suburban backyard, squats among the trees and picnic tables on this plot's minor acreage. The metal is so cold it's hot.

To the North, the lake crashes angrily against the strips of rock that delineate swimming areas which, thanks to poor water quality, remain largely theoretical. "Swim at Your Own Risk" signs likely aren't that elusive, intangible "something"  which Zimmerman and the commissioners say is necessary to attract visitors to the lakefront.

On Lakeshore Boulevard, south and slightly east, machines rumble and skirl at the behest of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District. That agency is in the midst of a $197 million project to create additional underground storage capacity for stormwater. Until the project is completed — roughly the first quarter of 2015, based on recent projections provided by Jennifer Elting at NEORSD — raw sewage will continue streaming directly into the lake every time it rains due to the joint treatment of stormwater and sewage.

Euclid Beach has seen the most calamitous effects on its water quality due to sewage, and it stands to see the most dramatic improvements when the sewer district project is complete.

But no one's swimming now. The rocks out on the water are so spiderwebbed with ice it looks like white paint has been splashed on them from low-flying cropdusters. A pier, which extends from the promenade out to the water's edge, is slanted and stumpy and lined with Victorian lamps.

This was once the famed Euclid Beach amusement park, America's roller coaster capital before Cedar Point, alive now only in the memories of seniors and nostalgic, sepia-toned postcards. Residents want to see the current Euclid Beach restored: not to its former glory, but to a new, more modest functionality.

In 2012, Northeast Shores Development Corporation, in conjunction with LAND Studio, contracted the design firm MKSK in Columbus to produce a comprehensive vision plan for the future of Euclid Beach Park. That plan, which was undertaken after extensive community feedback, imagined an $8.5 million makeover, all told. The plan leveraged the park's current infrastructural resources, envisioned greater connectivity to the adjacent Villa Angela Park and Wildwood Marina, promoted sustainable design options and residents' desire for green space and increased capacity for group gatherings.

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