The first job Dave Zenk applied for after graduating from Ohio State University was as a park manager for Toledo’s Wildwood Preserve Metropark.
“I remember going home and telling my wife that they offered me the job, and she said, ‘Well, what is it exactly?’ And I said, ‘I have no idea,’ ” Mr. Zenk says with a chuckle while leaning back in his chair in a conference room inside the Manor House on the grounds of Wildwood.
That job was to be a placeholder, a career jumping-off point for the self-described “General Motors brat” who moved continually as a child and whose extended family is now scattered around the United States. He had no allegiance to the Midwest but landed at Ohio State only because the Buckeyes and Notre Dame were the two football teams he could watch on Saturday afternoons as a child. He had to choose one of them, and Ohio State won out.
Although he never intended to remain in this area, the avid fisherman has grown to love the rich fisheries of Lake Erie and the Maumee River and the warmth of the community. In December, he was named the eighth executive director in the 90-year history of the Metroparks of the Toledo Area.
The parks board conducted a national search, but its clear choice was Mr. Zenk, 37, who in the previous five years had served as deputy director.
He oversaw an ambitious growth plan for the district, and was instrumental in opening four new parks in the past three years: Wiregrass Lakes, Fallen Timbers Battlefield, Westwinds, and Middlegrounds. Those are the first four parks opened in the past 40 years.
As executive director, his goal is to have a Metropark within five miles of every resident in Lucas County. The acquisition and development of Manhattan Marsh in the Detwiler Creek portion of Toledo will be the final piece of the puzzle to make that possible. At some point in the not-too-distant future, almost all of the Metroparks will be connected by a 50 to 60-mile trail system and the parks will contain close to 200 miles of trails.
Recent projects have included kayak launches, an archery range, a single-track trail for off-road biking, and a planned treehouse village. Mr. Zenk’s mission is to not only preserve land, but connect residents to it in a creative way.
The Whitehouse resident is a disciple of Texas A&M professor John Crompton, who has conducted extensive research on the economic benefits of parks. He has conclusively shown that homes within close proximity of a park or open spaces have property values 10 to 15 percent higher than those that are not.
Mr. Zenk says that research has held up with the development of downtown’s Middlegrounds park, and he expects it to be true when the Metroparks take control of the Marina District property from ProMedica. The goal is to acquire 65-70 acres over a three-year period and leave a portion of the property mixed-use to spark outside investment.
“I expect it to happen in a big way. It will breathe new life into this portion of Toledo. There was research done showing that there was one house valued over $100,000 in that area.
“Over the next 10 to 15 years, you will see that change,” Mr. Zenk says.
All of this is part of Mr. Zenk’s ambitious goal of making the Toledo area a more desirable place to live and to change the thinking of the region — from within and nationally.
When the Metroparks shared on Facebook a story by U.S. News & World Report in August that ranked Toledo No. 2 in the country for most fun places to live for outdoor lovers, commenters reacted with derision, joking about the potholes. Toledoans, obviously, have a hard time taking a compliment.
“If you were to say that there was a place with a world-class library, a world-class art museum, a world-class zoo, a great park district, some of the best natural resources in the country, great restaurants, no significant natural disasters, one of the most productive fisheries, wouldn’t you think that would be a great place to live?” Mr. Zenk asks. “Why are we not on the top of every top-10 list?
“The national growth rate is about 14 percent. Ohio is just over 2 percent. Lucas County isn’t at the bottom in the state, but it should be at the top. We need to start telling our story better and tell people everything that we’ve got. And we have to start believing in ourselves.”
Besides lousy self-esteem, one of the region’s issues is weak leaders who profess big ideas but have no plans to make them happen. The Metroparks should be a model.
In 2002, the district went to voters asking for money to expand its holdings, promising that it would increase its acreage by more than 50 percent. At that point, it had about 7,350 acres. It now has more than 12,000, a nearly 70 percent gain.
“The biggest thing we do is that we understand what the community values from us, and that is what we pursue. We are laser-focused on what our mission is, and we don’t veer off that,” Mr. Zenk says. “We’re not afraid to say no when we have to. We are data driven, we listen to the community, and we fulfill our promises.”
Laser-focused, not afraid to say no, listen to the community. They seem like reasonable ideas that Toledo City Council should adopt after its recent capitulation to Kroger.
Mr. Zenk jokes that he is one of the people that Toledo is continually trying to attract to the region: young, talented, with no built-in inferiority complex.
He may joke about that, but it’s true. Toledo needs young people with fresh, ambitious ideas.
He and other talented leaders such as Randy Oostra, Joe Napoli, and Brian Kennedy have a valuable role to play in the region reinventing itself.
“I think the Metroparks can be big in changing how this region thinks of itself and the way the nation looks at us. We can create a different mindset,” Mr. Zenk says. “If you look across the world, there is not a great city in the world that doesn’t have a great park system. It doesn’t exist.”
Brian Dugger is The Blade’s letters and op-ed editor. Contact him at email@example.com or 419-724-6476.
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