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."

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