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.

Parks & Reclamation 

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.

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.

The 30-page MKSK Master Plan is flush with images of farmers markets and youth soccer, to say nothing of Google Maps and sleek architectural renderings. The biggest financial priority (and one of residents' most pressing desires) was the rebuilding and extension of the Euclid Beach pier, estimated at $4 million.

Northeast Shores executive director Brian Friedman and LAND project manager Joel Wimbiscus presented the plan to Brian Zimmerman and the Metroparks board on Oct. 25, 2012. This was prior to the Metroparks' acquisition of Euclid Beach and the other lakefront properties.

The presentation wasn't what you'd call a slam dunk.

Though ultimately congratulatory, the commissioners seemed skeptical. (Audio of all Metroparks' board meetings and work sessions are available at clevelandmetroparks.com. The audio of this work session, however, was unavailable until Scene made a special request). In particular, Commissioner Dan T. Moore, the military helmet-pad magnate and former Whiskey Island owner, was adamant that visitors should be permitted to have "a beer or a glass of wine" at the park.

Friedman stated at least twice that residents were resistant to that idea, given Euclid Beach's history as a no-alcohol amusement park, and suggested that alcohol was the one item on which he'd have a very difficult time winning over the community.

Moore challenged him on it, asked him what statistics he had to back up his claims, said that he could poll 10 people at Whiskey Island and eight or nine of them would say they'd prefer to have a beer, which is sort of like saying you could poll 10 people in a bar and eight or nine of them would say they'd like to drink in a bar. When commissioner Bruce Rinker (the Mayfield Village mayor and attorney representing McDonald's in the Ohio City dispute) observed that Moore seemed "hung up" on the alcohol issue, Moore backpedaled and said only that the park needed to have something which would "drag" visitors there. He referenced Seattle and Chicago twice.

"I'm hung up on how you get people there. I want to make sure you understand: You have to offer people what they want," said Moore.

When Friedman said that improving the water quality and providing safe, clean beaches — the lakefront stretch from Euclid Beach to Wildwood is more public beach space than anywhere in Northeast Ohio, by the way — were the No. 1 items on residents' realistic wish list, Zimmerman chimed in:

"Think of the bigger picture, when you look at the amenities and some of the other business modeling we've been talking about. When you have a clean beach, you have, you know, some sort of little cabanas or some of the other things. I think where Commissioner Moore is going is you're going to have to provide — as traditional as the park may be or may have been — moving into that general framework of where it needs to go and how it needs to evolve. You're going to need to provide the amenities."  

Again, this work session took place months before the official Metroparks acquisition, but the tone here seems significant. It's dismissive and it's arrogant. It presupposes that the sort of adult-friendly development on Whiskey Island (and West 25th Street, notably) is the sort that residents always prefer. Commissioner Moore argued as such even when explicitly advised otherwise.

Other than the master plan itself, here's further "historical evidence" to back up Friedman's assertions. It's a clip from David and Diane Francis' book Cleveland Amusement Park Memories, published by Cleveland's Gray & Company in 2004:

"After 1901, when it was purchased by the Humphrey family, Euclid Beach became what was known as a "Sunday School" operation. The Humphrey Company imposed strict rules of deportment on park guests and established a code of decency that set Euclid Beach apart from most other parks in the industry. Alcoholic beverages were not sold at Euclid Beach, nor were they permitted on park grounds; and any person who was obviously under the influence of alcohol was turned away at the gate. The Humphreys had no tolerance for rowdy behavior of any kind, and they employed their own police to enforce park rules."

"I think it'd be interesting to get the community's thoughts on what they would really use," said Moore as the back-and-forths subsided, his copy of the Master Plan (chock-full of the community's thoughts) evidently untouched. At the end of the meeting, when he called Friedman's efforts "fabulous, for a start," he instructed the Northeast Shores executive director to "really think" about the park's assets.

"Think of what will make citizens go there and want to be there," he said. "That's something that has to be organic to the community."

The Mobile Home Dissection

If commissioner Moore seemed unduly ruffled by the question of alcohol, CEO Brian Zimmerman seemed ruffled (in his muted, executive way) at the question of the Euclid Beach Mobile Home Community, right next door to Euclid Beach.

As it turns out, there's been a semantic movement afoot since the early 1990s that has tried to remove the social stigmas surrounding mobile home communities, so the manager at Euclid Beach, a mile-a-minute zebra-stripe-wearing Michelle Orndoff, telling woebegone callers of various trailers' "monster potential" while signing for UPS packages and sending faxes, won't call it a "trailer park."  

Zimmerman, at the Oct. 25 board meeting, called it a compound.

"Why live in an apartment building and throw your money away on rent??" asks the webpage of Moore Enterprises (unrelated to commissioner Dan). "Start building equity now in your very own mobile home. Pull up in your own driveway and park your car in your garage. Plant flowers in the spring and rake leaves from your tree in the fall. Even shoveling snow in the winter is pleasurable as you realize the American dream. We will treat you like family at Moore Homes USA."

"Moore Homes" is something of an accidental capitalist double entendre when it comes to James Moore, the absentee owner of the Euclid Beach Mobile Home Community.  In Irving, Texas, on an airport freeway, in a building paneled in what seems like the only washed glass for miles, Moore owns and operates one of the largest mobile home conglomerates in the United States.  

He's been gobbling up properties left and right since 1987, and nowhere more so than in Ohio. Moore owns 22 mobile home communities in the Buckeye State. That's one more than all his other properties — in Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Montana — combined.

And the property on Lakeshore may be a hiccup down the road, if it interferes with the Metroparks' designs.

The puddles and gravel and trucker hats and American flags speared into the frosted mud, drooping in postures of piety, and the trios of denim-jacketed men and the Natty Lights, open and exposed, and the slow moving sedans of greys and creams and uncertain '90s vintage, patrolling these streets and grumbling like rodeo bulls in wait, and the beer bottles and chintzy decorations — Christmas, of course, but also Halloween and Easter — and the propane tanks and the cats and the cat decorations and the cat towers in what feels like every other open window and the signage endorsing vigilante justice ("We Don't Dial 911"):  It's a collage of stereotypical trailer-park imagery laid bare and real.

Currently, there are 240 mobile homes occupied in the 267-site park, Michelle Orndoff said. The community is fenced off from Euclid Beach to the east and Wildwood to the west.

Northeast Shores has acknowledged that it's not an ideal land use, to have two public parks bisected by the mobile home community; but to a certain extent, there's nothing they can do.

"The trailer park is not for sale," Friedman told the board last year.

James Moore is notorious for never relinquishing his properties. He's made it clear that he has no interest in communicating, or "engaging" as community development professionals say.  

Councilman Mike Polensek has suggested that the mobile home area be converted to an "urban campground," pending acquisition, but doesn't have an incredibly cordial relationship with Orndoff and the mobile home management team. Polensek wouldn't comment on whether or not there were plans to acquire the property, even at some point in the future.

"There are still discussions being had," said Polensek, in a phone interview.

Although who's having those discussions is unclear.

Orndoff certainly isn't. From her trailer office, she said that she's spoken with no one from the Metroparks or elsewhere about the property being sold. She was happy to voice her appreciation of the Metroparks' early cleanup efforts at Euclid Beach.  

"They've been down here every day," she said, of the cleanup crews. "Every single day."

James Moore, in Texas, didn't respond to requests for comment. But one of his regional directors, in Toledo, said she hadn't heard anything about the Lakeshore property.   

Joel Wimbiscus, at LAND, said he had "no knowledge" of what the Metroparks' next steps were, but that he suspected the mobile home community was fairly low on their priority list.  

Sue Allen was very forthright when questioned about the future of the mobile home community. "There are no plans," she said. "It's premature to speculate."

When asked if CMP was satisfied with the current arrangement, Allen said, "I never said that."

The Secret Infrastructure

Right now, according to Allen, the Metroparks are still in the "look, learn and listen" phase of their lakefront property ownership, "trying to get a sense of the deferred maintenance." She reminded Scene that they've only been in charge of the parks since June, and that much still has to be learned about what specifically they've acquired.

Stephen Love, of the Euclid Beach Adopt-a-Beach group, generally agreed in a phone interview. He said that crews have been doing physical inventories at the parks "down to the level of the faucet."

He also said, at Euclid Beach, that there's a much larger potential infrastructural acquisition that the Metroparks weren't expecting. A team of structural engineers and maintenance crews discovered a portion of concrete at the base of the pier not supported underneath.

"It was hollow," said Love, "and that hollow area potentially extends well into the park."

Love spoke with Jim Bell, a Metroparks engineer, and Nancy Desmond, the director of special projects. He said much is still unknown about this mysterious hollow area, but that it may have been a historical relic of the old amusement park's infrastructure, possibly a large storage area or network of storage areas and tunnels for workers and equipment.

When Scene contacted Nancy Desmond, she said that she wasn't the right person to talk to. She directed questions to Sue Allen.

Allen verified that "consultants and engineers" had been working hard at the lakefront parks, but when asked about the specific situation regarding the underground tunnels at Euclid Beach, said, "I don't know anything about that."

Her avowed ignorance came as a surprise, given the barricades and spray paint marking off the area, the work of Metroparks' maintenance crews [photo above].

Stephen Love, Brian Friedman and others are not concerned with the Metroparks' stewardship: They know that CMP has the financial resources and management expertise to enhance the quality of the lakefront parks. The bigger issue is communication.

"We want to be good partners," said Brian Friedman in a follow-up call. "But I'm happy to say publicly that I don't know what's going on, and I'd like to know."

Friedman said that though the Metroparks is a "good" organization, they're not used to working in neighborhoods with residents who expect to be engaged and who expect their feedback to be taken into consideration.

Joel Wimbiscus felt the same way, and said that "they've learned a lot" in their short time at the helm. He also said that ultimately, CMP had no obligation to honor the Euclid Beach proposal. "It wasn't their design process and something, necessarily, they were envisioning," he said.

Stephen Love suspected that money from the levy will be spent on enhancements to the park, even if major capital investments aren't on the docket. What worries him is that transformative action may be taken without something like community meetings. He was led to believe that the park may be shut down for a significant period of time and that millions of dollars would be necessary to correct the "imminent danger" the tunnels represented, affecting the pier and the fountain and aspects of the park residents have serious emotional attachments to.  

"We hope to really have an open door, and a way to affect the process and provide input," Love said, speaking in macro terms.  "We voted yes [on the levy], and there was a lot of excitement around that June transfer. There's an opportunity for them to capitalize. And unfortunately if they don't, some of the five-years-out conversations will be negative. I think as time goes by that excitement will turn into anticipation, and then eventually frustration."

The CEO Problem and a Matter of Transparency

Brian Zimmerman, in his opening remarks after being sworn in as the executive director-secretary of the parks in 2010, suggested that three items were essential to his tenure at the outset: maintenance of the park system's current infrastructure, acquisition of new land parcels and financial integrity. From the outside, he appears to have been doing a bang-up job on all three.

Yet one source characterizes Zimmerman's leadership slightly differently.

"It is common knowledge that Metroparks administration thrives on an environment that is [laden] with abuse, intimidation, workplace bullying, hidden cameras, and coercion," they said.

Common knowledge, perhaps, to employees; but not to those unfamiliar with park operations and not — in all likelihood — to most voters. And while employees' opinions may fall on either side of the argument, the highly secretive nature of the Metroparks means even former employees aren't likely to talk. The source describes dismissals of long-tenured workers while Zimmerman oversaw the ballooning of salaries for administrative personnel, as well as massive payroll dollars for consultants and lobbyists.

Other sources have confirmed that former employees were bullied into non-disclosure agreements that prevented them from talking about their departures and their time at the Metroparks.

 In March 2011, the Center for Marketing and Opinion Research (CMOR), based in Akron, conducted an employee satisfaction survey of the Metroparks' employees. The survey consisted of questions related to job satisfaction, opportunities for advancement, organizational culture, training, communication, leadership and diversity.

According to sources, the results of the survey showed low job satisfaction, a distrust of leadership, and a culture of suspicion. CMOR would not verify the results of the survey. Since that time, more than 50 employees have retired, and an unknown number of people have quit or been fired. The minutes from board meetings show that Zimmerman often brings around "retiring guests" to "honor their service" to the park district.

In the meantime, administrators and directors continue to make bank. Listed in the board minutes for Dec. 22, 2011, is an action item related to wage structure and salary increases. There is a charge listed at "$5,000 - $20,000" for an outside consultant to conduct a compensation survey for 12 positions.

A compensation survey had already been performed just three years prior (listed in the board minutes Dec. 18, 2008). That survey resulted in a 3-percent increase to 2009 salaries for full-time and part-time non-union employees, and a 3.5-percent increase for both the executive director and treasurer.  

The results of the 2011 survey resulted in a 2.85-percent salary increase for full-time and part-time non-union employees, and a 7.5-percent pay increase for Zimmerman and 5-percent increase for CFO Dave Kuntz.

In addition to the unproportional pay increase, the Archer Company consultancy recommended increasing the pay grades to add three additional grades at the high end. Until that time, the salary structure provided salary grades 21 through 38. Archer recommended that the Executive Director-Secretary position (Zimmerman) be assigned to salary grade 41, which will ultimately allow him to make more than $200,000.

Currently, via a public records request to the Metroparks, Zimmerman makes $165,000 with $14,000 in benefits. In 2010, his salary was $145,000 plus a signing bonus. One source familiar with the Metroparks' finances suspects that Zimmerman is in store for another significant raise in 2013 and predicts that it will only be reported as a percentage.

Though other top public officials make roughly commensurate salaries — Mayor Frank Jackson makes $136,000, for comparison — Zimmerman stands to become the highest paid park chief in the state and the second-highest official in Cleveland (second only to Ricky D. Smith, the director of port control) when he reaches his pay grade's maximum.

Meanwhile, consultants are providing redundant or completely unnecessary services. Commissioners okayed $30,000 for an executive search for a Chief Operations Officer. Zimmerman eventually tapped his pal from Milwaukee, Joe Roszak, to be his second in command.

The point here is that the Metroparks have a tremendous amount of money on hand. And, after the levy's passage, they now have substantially more. Because the public is paying premium tax rates, CMP owes it to the public to be accountable and transparent about their spending. The fact that they make their board meetings available online is excellent. The fact that issues regarding compensation, personnel and real estate — issues in which the commissioners often have vested business interests — are excluded from public record, the stuff of private "executive sessions," is troubling.  

One source called the Metroparks a "secretive" organization, a trait bred out of excessive caution. "They just like to have their ducks in a row."

Another source called Zimmerman a "tyrant."

Regardless of personal impressions, though, the positive results at the lakefront are a real thing. The cosmetics have drastically improved. The tone for safety and security have been set. It remains to be seen how and when the Metroparks will make changes at Euclid Beach and the other parks in the Emerald Necklace's newest holdings, but the public will keep asking.  

More by Sam Allard

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