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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.
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