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Washed Up 

Is there any hope for Cleveland's deteriorating lakefront parks?

The 300-foot-long wooden fishing pier at Euclid Beach collapsed into Lake Erie decades ago, but the crumbling concrete base still juts out toward the water like the stub of a lost limb. A picturesque view of downtown Cleveland can be glimpsed from its edge — partially blocked by a pile of trash, driftwood, and eight-foot-high weeds.

The lower pavilion at Edgewater Park is the perfect place to catch a Lake Erie sunset, especially now that a group of volunteers has revived the tradition of live music in the park. Yet the sand is filled with cigarette butts, and the trash barrels are overflowing. Recently, Edgewater was ranked one of the top beaches in the Great Lakes for cigar-tip litter.

More than maintenance issues plague the Cleveland Lakefront State Parks: Euclid Beach and Edgewater, along with Gordon Park, Villa Angela, and Wildwood. There are leaky restrooms in desperate need of renovation, broken picnic tables awaiting repair, no lifeguards on the beaches, and only four rangers to keep the sprawling park areas safe.

The lakefront parks also have the highest crime rate in the state. Cleveland's parks accounted for 151 of 199 felony arrests in all of Ohio's state parks last year.

"It's like a sore wound," says Ward 11 Councilman Mike Polensek, who represents the North Collinwood neighborhood and sponsored the legislation to lease Cleveland's lakefront parks to the State of Ohio in 1978. "This is not rocket science. If you don't supply security, then the vandals come in."

After a recent series of Plain Dealer articles embarrassed the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), the agency took care of the most egregious maintenance needs, repairing broken benches, cleaning trash-filled beaches, replacing lightbulbs, and planting flowers. ODNR has also initiated some restroom repairs, landscaping, and parking lot improvements. As important as these upgrades are, however, they are short-term and cosmetic.

"It's about more than planting petunias and showing up with a weed whacker," says Polensek. "We need a plan for long-term maintenance, management, and security."

That plan seems unlikely to come from the state, which has no timeline for beefing up staffing or making major improvements. Like most government agencies these days, ODNR is pressed to keep up with basic operations; in the past six years alone, its budget has been cut by 50 percent.

ODNR has been in talks with the Cleveland Metroparks about taking over management of the lakefront parks. But that idea is going nowhere, chiefly because the Metroparks will not consider taking over the parks until the backlog of infrastructure needs, which has been estimated at $10 to $20 million, has been addressed.

And Metroparks officials have their own budget restrictions. Sometime next year, they will have to go to Cuyahoga County voters for approval of a 1.85-mill levy just to maintain funding for current operations. Whether voters would approve additional funding for the Metroparks to acquire, manage, and improve the city's lakefront parks is an open question.

The City of Cleveland is in a similar face-off with ODNR, requesting more capital investment from the state before it will consider any changes to the lease agreement.

Meanwhile, the parks continue to deteriorate, with much of the maintenance work being done by citizen volunteer groups. Until, and unless, the government agencies can form a working partnership, or one of them steps forward with money and the determination to take a leadership role, the lakefront parks will remain a symbol of decay and neglect.

The lakefront parks didn't get this way overnight. In many ways they're a symbol of Cleveland's epic failure to ensure high-quality access to its lakefront, as well as a vivid reminder of the city's painful decline.

The City of Cleveland leased the lakefront parks to the State of Ohio in 1978 because it didn't have money to maintain them and believed the state would do a better job. According to a copy of the lease obtained by Scene, the city assigned its lakefront parks to ODNR for one dollar on April 26, 1978. The 50-year contract runs through April 26, 2028.

During an initial "five-year trial period," ODNR was required to submit a "Lakefront Park and Recreation Development Plan and Capital Improvement Program" to the City of Cleveland "for review by and recommendations of the City Council, City Planning Commission, and the Commissioner of Harbors." After 1983, however, it appears that the state had broad discretion to develop its own parks budget.

"Since the state took over operating the Cleveland lakefront parks, ODNR has poured upwards of $50 million in capital funds to make improvements to them," says agency spokesperson Bethany McCorkle. But there is no specific strategy or focus on the lakefront parks. "Rather, we have a statewide strategic plan that covers all 75 state parks," she says.

And the lakefront parks' slice of the plan continues to decline. In 2006, it was $4.3 million from a total budget of $79.4 million. This year, it's down to $2.1 million from a total budget of $44.8 million.

Polensek believes it's time to transfer management away from ODNR, seeing a drop-off in political as well as financial support.

"At the time [of the 1978 transfer], the governor [Jim Rhodes] was from Cleveland, and the state was able to put money into the parks," he says. "In the '80s and '90s, we had the state's commitment to the lakefront. But from Taft through Strickland and Kasich, there's been a steady decline."

To be fair, this "decline" corresponded with two major recessions that occurred over the past decade. And ODNR's budget has been a frequent target for cuts by the state legislature; in 2009, the agency reported a $500 million maintenance backlog statewide.

Still, Polensek sees the lakefront parks as part of the larger picture of the state balancing its budget — which now shows a healthy surplus — on the backs of local municipalities across Ohio.

"I'm sick and tired of hearing about their budget surpluses when they take money from everybody — cities, schools — and can't even maintain the lakefront parks," he says.

Polensek isn't willing to give the city a free ride either. He calls the city an "absentee landlord" that hasn't policed its agreement with the state. "The city rented the parks to the state, and the state is not doing a good job," he says. "The city needs to become heavily engaged in this process, and I don't know where they are."

The Jackson administration resists accusations that it is not fully engaged. "Mayor Jackson is extremely committed to the waterfront of Cleveland, and has focused some of the most important developments there, like the Flats East Bank project," says Ken Silliman, Jackson's chief of staff. "We are very willing to address this issue with the state and will be seeking the best ways to have those discussions in the near future."

Yet despite much-vaunted plans, including a lakefront plan finished in 2006, the city has little to show for its efforts. Two parks, Wendy Park and the Cleveland Lakefront Nature Preserve, have opened in recent years, but they are owned by Cuyahoga County and the Cleveland Cuyahoga Port Authority, respectively.

Ward 15 Councilman Matt Zone, who represents a portion of Edgewater Park, says that now would be a great time for the city to pivot and focus attention on the lakefront parks.

"The last four years, we've come through some complicated projects that have taken a lot of time and effort," he says. "Whether it's the Med Mart, Flats East Bank, or the casino, these big-ticket items are now moving along on autopilot. Now the city needs to create a unified approach moving forward."

What will it take to fix the lakefront parks? Although public officials are skittish to put a price tag on park improvements, informal estimates have tagged the basic deferred infrastructure needs at $10 to $20 million.

That's probably just a down payment on what's needed to make the parks shine. According to an engineering study by the nonprofit Northeast Shores Development Corporation, a new fishing pier at Euclid Beach Park alone would cost $4 million. And park advocates have a much longer list of big-ticket projects. For instance, Polensek wants to see the Euclid Beach concession stand reopened. Edgewater enthusiasts would like to see a dedicated beachcomber for their beach.

Any change in the funding and management of the parks would have to start with the lease agreement between the city and the state. But neither side seems to feel any sense of urgency. City officials say serious talks have to begin with the state putting up serious money.

"Mayor Jackson would welcome an opportunity for local management of the lakefront parks under the right conditions," says Silliman. "But there needs to be some capital investments in each of the parks from the State of Ohio."

Would ODNR consider ending the lease early and handing over the parks with a pile of transition funding? "There have been conversations, and we're open to continuing the dialogue about the parks' future," says McCorkle. "But it's too soon to talk numbers."

This sort of bureaucratic foot-dragging and political football provides little comfort to grassroots activists who have been waiting a long time for working showers.

"We've been talking about the problems in the parks for years," says Mandy Metcalf, president of Friends of Edgewater Park. "It took a scathing commentary in the Plain Dealer to get something to happen. That's a tough way of trying to make change."

The Metroparks probably represent the best hope for serious change, though next year's levy poses a critical hurdle. Still, the current interest represents a sea change from the previous administration, which wouldn't consider adding new parks that weren't contiguous to the existing, mostly suburban parks.

The Metroparks set precedent for a new direction with its recent purchase of the 2.8-acre Rivergate Park in the Flats — a beachhead on the way to Lake Erie — for $1.42 million (most of that funding came from grants provided by the federal government and area foundations). And its new master plan stresses a commitment to urban areas.

"When you look at our strategic plan, citizens of Northeast Ohio have asked for stronger connections to parks," says Brian Zimmerman, who took over as CEO of the Metroparks in 2010 and has led efforts to produce the 2020 Centennial Plan. "That's consistent with [founder] William Stitchcomb's original vision, which was built around riparian corridors. I think people in Northeast Ohio understand what a wonderful asset our lakefront is."

Zimmerman acknowledges having discussions with the State of Ohio about taking over management of the lakefront parks, but offers the same caveat that the city does: The Metroparks can't shoulder all of the needed improvements.

"The state has done a number of improvements over the years," he says. "Do the parks need another update? Absolutely. There are a number of areas of concern."

Though he declines to get into specifics, the Metroparks Planning Department had previously estimated as much as $16 million or more in deferred upkeep — money that the State of Ohio or the next lakefront parks manager will have to find somewhere.

Realistically, for the Metroparks to assume management of the lakefront state parks, the organization will have to ask voters for a substantial raise. The park system ended the most recent fiscal year with just $58,000 in its coffers.

The Metroparks' current 1.85-mill levy, which expires in November 2013, costs the owner of a $100,000 home in Cuyahoga County or Hinckley Township $60 per year. Under state law, any request for an increase must be capped at no more than three mills.

Zimmerman says he does not yet know what the size of the levy request will be, because the agency is still finalizing its master plan and prioritizing new projects.

Politically, Zimmerman sees potential support in polling done by the Metroparks that shows Cuyahoga County voters in favor of expanding into urban communities, including adding the lakefront parks. Yet a big levy might fail if it's seen as shifting the burden to local taxpayers, especially without a major investment by the state.

What could persuade the state to sink a lot of money into the parks and then turn over management to the Metroparks? Privately, city leaders speculate that the answer might lie in creating a political opportunity for Kasich.

The governor often says how much he likes Cleveland, and he has been spending more time in Northeast Ohio, most recently to announce a funding plan for the Innerbelt bridge. He also likes to say that he doesn't think about his political future, yet it's no secret that votes in Cuyahoga County are important to statewide office seekers. This leads some city officials to think that Kasich may want to curry favor here.

Turning over the parks to another manager would also save Ohio money in the long run, something that's consistent with the Kasich administration's fiscally conservative image.

"It makes economic sense when you consider what the state now has to pay annually," says Silliman. "We're hopeful that the state will consider making a capital contribution."

Polensek is slightly less politic on the subject. "I keep hearing John Kasich wants to do things smarter and more efficiently," he says. "Well — this is smarter and more efficient."

Even as the future of the lakefront state parks remains in limbo, groups of citizen activists have banded together to maintain the parks and fight for basic upkeep.

Stephen Love, a Cleveland Heights resident who first visited Euclid Beach a few years ago during a trip to his grandmother's house in North Collinwood, now organizes monthly beach cleanups as president of the Friends of Euclid Beach. He also helped organize this summer's Euclid Beach Blast festival.

Mandy Metcalf has organized an Urban Beach Ambassador program with the Friends of Euclid Beach and another local nonprofit organization called Drink Local Drink Tap. About a dozen volunteers have signed on to help do regular maintenance in the parks.

These advocates do not all agree that Metroparks control would solve the parks' problems. Metcalf, for one, fears the loss of state funding, and says that either agency could effectively manage the parks "with enough resources and local accountability."

Yet most agree that the parks could be much more. Metcalf envisions the lower pavilion at Edgewater as a signature gathering place for summer concerts. The Friends group raised money this year to hold a small concert series.

For now, she'd be happy if ODNR simply fixed the women's bathrooms, which have holes in the stall doors. "It's a little shocking to people who use them," she says.

As far as Euclid Beach goes, Northeast Shores Development Corporation is nearly done facilitating a master plan and wish list that will guide the future development of their parks. Elements include a new fishing pier, boardwalk, nature preserve, trail linkages, pedestrian bridge, picnic pavilions, concession stand, and possibly ball fields.

Future improvements to water quality at Euclid Beach will also help. The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District is building a $200 million storage tank to reduce the number of combined sewer overflows (basically, raw sewage discharges into Lake Erie), many of which emanate from a large pipe near Euclid Beach, from 60 to 80 per year down to about four.

Lakefront park advocates are also banding together to help raise money for future improvement projects. The Lakefront Conservancy is a new nonprofit that aims to leverage public investment in the parks to raise private dollars for needed projects.

"We want to bring Cleveland's lakefront state parks up to signature status with other great parks that are all around the country," says Lynn Gearity of the Conservancy.

Yet their success will depend largely on who is managing the parks, and what they intend to do. It will be tough to raise money from foundations or individuals if there isn't a plan in place for drastic improvements.

If all that dreaming by the activists seems unrealistic, look no further than the newly opened Cleveland Lakefront Nature Preserve, an 88-acre park on the east side. The location, adjacent to Gordon Park, is a birders' paradise with downtown and lake views.

In 2010, the preserve was a stalled project that had been languishing for years. The Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority owned a dredging disposal facility called Dike 14 on the site, which environmental tests had shown could be turned into a park. When Port CEO Will Friedman arrived in Cleveland via Indianapolis, he made creating the park a top priority.

In February of this year, the nature preserve opened to the public. The Port Authority collaborated with the Metroparks, Cleveland Museum of Natural History, environmentalists, the city, and other partners to clean up the site, fence it off, and create a 1.3-mile, unpaved loop trail.

Beyond that, not much was required. The Port spent $21,879 building a gate, fencing, and signage, and preparing logos and a survey. It has budgeted $57,000 in 2012 for maintaining, upgrading, and marketing the park. The Metroparks staff is helping with trail maintenance.

"This project should be inspirational for the community," says Friedman, noting that it's not unusual for ports in other cities to play a key role in maintaining waterfront parks.

Along the rest of the lakefront, the best hope for improvement probably lies with the Metroparks. With the right packaging, advocates are optimistic that the public might approve an expanded levy next year.

"I've always thought if you put a well thought-out green space proposal to voters, they'll buy it," says David Beach, director of the GreenCityBlueLake Institute at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. "Ideally, Cleveland's lakefront should be seen as a regional resource that benefits all of Northeast Ohio, and the entire region should support it."

Zimmerman is similarly upbeat about the Metroparks playing a role in ensuring higher-quality access to the lakefront in the future.

"Anytime you can connect land, water, and people together, it's an amazing thing," he says. "The lakefront is an amazing asset, and we feel there's an opportunity to preserve, enhance, and protect these natural resources for the future."

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