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Long-time chief of Cuyahoga Valley National Park retires
Plans to join park's nonprofit partner

Web Editor
M.L. Schultze
Cuyahoga Valley National Park Superintendent John Debo with his boss, Ken Salazar, in the park last month.
Courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey Department of the Interior/USGS U.S. Geological Survey/photo by Tami Heilemann, U.S. Geological Survey
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After more than two decades, John Debo is retiring as superintendent of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. During his tenure, the stretch of green between Akron and Cleveland has grown by more than half and has become one of the most used parks in the country. Debo's moving over to become the chief fundraiser for the park's biggest private partner: the nonprofit Cuyahoga Valley National Park Association.
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Audio story by M.L. Schultze

Text story by Holly Schoenstein

BRECKSVILLE –  John Debo has announced his retirement after 21 years as superintendent of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. 

When he came to the valley, it wasn’t even officially called a national park; it was known as a national recreation area. 

But with help from the Trust for Public Lands and former U.S. Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Navarre, it formally become a park. 

Today it’s the sixth most-visited among the 58 in the national park system. 

Debo said the name change wasn’t the only progress made during his time as superintendent. 

During his tenure, park supporters accomplished an unusual task – transforming the vacant sports complex known as the Richfield Coliseum -- and the 300 acres surrounding it -- into an open field filled that’s primarily used these days by birds. 

            “It was, I think, 1999 when we acquired the Coliseum, which was a watershed moment for this park because that property could easily have gone in a very different direction.” Debo said. The property could “have been very heavily commercially developed as a retail mall and would have effectively destroyed this park,”.

            The project was one of the most significant and most expensive, costing nearly $10 million.

            “And even at that it was a bargain sale price,” Debo said.  “The Gunds sold the Coliseum at far less than market value.” 

            This acquisition has helped the Cuyahoga park to 33,000 acres.  The National Park Service oversees 20,000 of them.  Most of the rest of the acreage falls within local park districts . Other partners include the Blossom music center, Boy and Girl Scout camps, two snow skiing areas and some private property. 

            Blossom represents the park district’s biggest unfinished project for now. The parent organization of the Cleveland Orchestra has reached a deal in principal to sell 600 of Blossom’s 800 acres to the park.

            Debo said the park and the Musical Arts Association both want to head off development.  “We’re at the process of determining value.  We’re hopeful that we can agree on price, and then the final shoe to drop there is we will have to obtain the funding.  And we’re working with the members of the Ohio congressional delegation and other possible sources of funding.”

            Debo said he is certain that the park will buy at least part of Blossom.

            “It won’t necessarily happen in one fell swoop.  It likely might be a phased acquisition of the property as funding becomes available, but I’m confident eventually that the outcome will be all of those Blossom lands will be purchased by the National Park Service and forever protected,” he said.

After retirement, Debo plans take over the fundraising role at the park’s private partner, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park Association. Like many things that the foundering economy has hindered, the Cuyahoga park’s fundraising efforts have suffered, Debo said, “but not so much that it’s going to affect the outcome. … There’s still great work being done by CVNPA, and I think they’re looking to brighter days.”

The association raises about $1 million each year. And the money has been put to good use expanding and improving the park, according to Debo.

“I have sometimes described this as a vast, green garden lined between the two cities Cleveland and Akron on the Cuyahoga River, and I just think it’s an absolute gem,” Debo said.  “It took a lot of money and a lot of time, really 35 years, to get to the point where we are today.  But this park has come of age.

“We don’t have geysers and canyons and mountains here, but it’s really an absolutely beautiful, pastoral landscape of woods and fields and farms and meadows and just really a magnificent place.”

Debo worked for the park service for a dozen years before coming to Northeast Ohio, starting in Acadia National Park in Maine.  He has also done some historical work at urban parks.


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