In the late 1970’s, cash strapped Cleveland turned over management of its lakefront parks to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. The agreement made the city’s Edgewater, Villa Angela and Euclid Beach parks much better places. But when the state’s budget started shrinking, park maintenance across Ohio shrank with it. Today, broken benches and picnic tables, over-flowing trash cans and vandalized amenities plague Cleveland’s lakefront parks. On a recent morning at Edgewater Park on Cleveland’s western border, Twyla Hurley was walking her dog.
“It’s been pretty bad. I’ve spoken to workers who admit they don’t have much help probably due to budget cuts. We could use more picking up, or maybe people being more considerate of what we have here. It’s a beautiful park, but if we trash all you can say is that help is needed.”
Ohio parks prioritizing work to stretch dwindling dollars
The issues Hurley points out are affecting all of the state’s 74 parks. The Ohio Division of Parks and Recreation’s annual budget has gone from $40 million in 2007 to just over $30 million this year, with no increase expected next year. And since 2000, the full-time staff has dropped 40-percent to about 450. Gary Obermiller is park administrator for the northern district which includes Edgewater and Mohican State Park in Ashland County. Driving through Mohican’s pine covered hills on our way to the park’s Gorge Overlook, Obermiller talks about the challenges of keeping up.
“We’re big on the first impression items like keeping up with mowing, trimming, litter, clean restrooms, those are the priorities. Where we’ve suffered is in infrastructure repairs to restrooms and buildings. I’m not making excuses because of the fewer dollars and staff, but it does impact us and we have to prioritize. There are times when things happen like the storm yesterday that knocked down trees and branches. Today we have to send everyone out to clean that up, then we get behind on mowing.”
We arrive at the Gorge Overlook, a stone balcony built into a hillside above a vast green valley. Nearby, some pieces of a split rail fence are missing as are some stones in the steps.
“The Gorge Overlook is one of the park’s most popular attractions of the trails and scenic vistas. But it’s not as open as it used to be because trees have fallen off the hillside which allows more light in, and that leads to other growth that blocks some of the views people were used to. It’s hard to fix that on these steep hillsides. But it’s one of the issue we try to address as they come up.
Funding isn’t the only issue. Obermiller says the parks also suffered from a lack of foresight.
“As faced the adversity with budgets and staffing, we had seasoned veterans and experienced managers and skilled maintenance people retire, we were caught by surprise. Unfortunately we didn’t prepare for the future. So we’re at a point where we’re rebuilding and reorganizing. We’re looking at how we did business in the past and how we’ll do it the future. We stumbled a bit, but we’re getting back on our feet and addressing those issues to improve things now and build for the future so this doesn’t happen again.”
Park and recreation working with other state and local agencies
Obermiller says one positive change is more cooperation between state departments. In the past, he says parks and recreation and the state forestry department, which is located at Mohican, rarely worked together. But now they regularly help each other out. Despite Mohicans problems, campers in their tents and trailers don’t seem to notice. Sitting at his campsite, regular visitor, Rob Tinney from eastern Ohio says he seen no decline at this park.
“Other parks like the ones in Jefferson County where we’re from we see more and more state parks closing because there’s no money for them. But it’s obvious Mohican is thriving. I don’t see any changes here, everything is maintained well. Jefferson State Lake is the main state park in Jefferson County. It’s lost so much funding that they wanted the county to take it over, but the county doesn’t have any money either. So they’re talking about logging the entire park for revenue, and they’ve considering gas and oil leases as well.”
Cleveland lakefront state parks could join Metropark system
Last year, Ohio’s legislature voted to allow oil and gas drilling in the state parks to raise revenue. The state is still finalizing the rules, but has proposed allowing drilling, including controversial fracking, as close as 300 feet away from campsites and waterways. Meanwhile, the state and many advocates are pushing better funded entities to take over management of some state parks. For years, the city of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County and many residents have been calling for the Cleveland Metroparks system to take over Edgewater and the other lakefront parks. Metroparks Executive Director Brian Zimmerman says his organization would love to add the venues to its more than 22,000 acres of parks ringing greater Cleveland. He says discussions and evaluations are ongoing, but a decision comes down to what it would cost the debt-free Metropark system to bring them up to standard.
“In every negotiation, like buying a car, it comes down to dollars and cents. And we will not put our Metropark system, that’s well known and loved in jeopardy to take over these lakefront parks. So the reality is, we need to make the financial number work to make this transaction happen.”
The state spends about $2 million a year for up-keep on the 3 lakefront parks, and it would cost many millions more to renovate them. Sixty percent of the Metroparks budget comes from a county property tax levy. Ohio’s state parks also use partnerships to make-up for fewer dollars and personnel. Park Administrator Obermiller says they now work closer with local police and emergency responders. And there are many volunteers who pitch in to help. Christen Kiffle and her family has lived near Cleveland’s Edgewater Park for more than 2 decades. They use the park everyday and take an active role in maintaining it.
“We pick up trash at Perkins beach on Sunday mornings with our own trash bags and carry it out. We were one of the first people to lobby for the stairs down to Perkins because there was just a trash filled path down to it. The piers down there are gorgeous and once a real jewel of city, and it’s the reason were still here in Cleveland on the lakefront.”
The Ohio Division of Parks and Recreation estimates it would cost nearly half a billion dollars to catch-up on the deferred maintenance at all 74 parks. And that’s on top of the cost of keeping the grass mowed and the trash cleaning up.