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Published: Sunday, 5/30/2010

Keeping Cedar Point pretty

BY TAHREE LANE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
The landscaping crew's talent can be seen in front of the Bay Harbor restaurant. The landscaping crew's talent can be seen in front of the Bay Harbor restaurant.
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Grounds crew members Josh James, left, and Jim Williams mow near the Corkscrew. Grounds crew members Josh James, left, and Jim Williams mow near the Corkscrew.
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Lush landscaping frames one of the rides at Cedar Point. Lush landscaping frames one of the rides at Cedar Point.
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SANDUSKY — Vertical thrills abound at Cedar Point, but Tom Roberts is about the green, not the scream.

His task is creating visual comfort to soften these 364 acres of mostly asphalt, concrete, and steel for the 3 million people who visit each year.

"If it were not there, you would notice. It's always in the peripheral vision of people," says Mr. Roberts, the landscaping supervisor and a 1969 Bowsher High School graduate. "It's almost like being an entertainer. Every day you have an audience and you want to leave them thinking, ‘Wow! Is that Cedar Point beautiful!'"

Framing the image of the 1870-vintage park are trees and bushes of all sizes and bloom times, tens of thousands of annuals being planted into June, hundreds of flower-packed pots, hanging baskets, and dozens of varieties of ornamental grasses. There's the 32-foot-by-50-foot American flag planted last week with red and white begonias and blue ageratums. The hybrid tea roses that were here when he was hired to pull weeds 37 years ago have been replaced by nearly 500 of the fairly new Knock Out variety, easy-care, repeat bloomers that resist diseases such as black spot.

He knows that creating shade is essential. So is green screening and defensive flora, such as hedges that deter people from traipsing through flower beds.

"The more you can make it people-proof, the better off you are," says Mr. Roberts, 59. "It's quite a garden when you see it as a garden and not just a big old amusement park."

In jeans and work boots, he's on his phone and two-way radio, climbing in and out of his truck to talk with contractors who exterminate pests and tend to the big trees. He calls a staffer about a protruding hose near the paddle-wheel boat ride, and later, about a small sinkhole at Cedar Point Marina.

In front of Bay Harbor restaurant, famous for sunset watching, a rocky swale that accepts water runoff is beautifully arranged with Japanese blood grass, adagio grass, a gnarled weeping birch, hostas, Japanese maples, dwarf blue spruce, and spirea; a few were transplanted from elsewhere in the park.

"Some of the plants get moved like furniture," he says.

A boater who keeps his float at the marina, Mr. Roberts eyeballs lake conditions whenever possible. "Whitecaps," he notes one day earlier this month. "Prevailing winds from the southwest."

He was hired as seasonal help in 1973, a year after another Toledo native, the park's longtime CEO, Richard Kinzel, came to work in food operations. Mr. Roberts had just earned an education degree at Bowling Green State University, but classroom jobs were scarce. Six years later, he was running the department.

"I really took to it," he says. "Grass has been good to me."

The year-round staff of seven is augmented by 14 people hired March through Labor Day. "I'm just the ringmaster."

A crew of six mow grass from 5 to 9 a.m. daily, four to six others plant and maintain flowers, and three water from midnight to 8:30 a.m. and during the day as needed. When the park opens, most of the landscaping staff heads for other parts of the property.

Each time a new ride is built, landscaping is installed. When the marina was renovated, lawns and plants went in. There's a pair of hotel grounds to look after: the Breakers and Sandcastle, and an RV campground.

More than 100 new cottages and cabins constructed at Lighthouse Point in 2001 and 2004 required substantial landscaping between each of the dwellings, as well as perennials and grasses around a new rocky pond.

"Whenever you put something in, you have to know the ramifications of caring for it. Everything requires some effort if you want it to look nice."

Take blue lyme grass. Planted in several places, it can tolerate strong winds and sand, but it's invasive and creeps under the train's tracks to the chagrin of the engineer.

Mother Nature provides Mr. Roberts' greatest challenges, ranging from the occasional ferocious storm whipping off Lake Erie to the sand that blows constantly into grass and beds. "We shovel it out, scoop it, whatever it takes."

Geese make messes and eat new grass. Rabbits are voracious munchers too.

"Everything we do here the homeowner can do," he says. "If somebody takes the initiative, they can learn a lot."

Fall and winter, the permanent staff rakes tons of leaves, prunes, and shovels snow from locations where the 250-year-round employees work.

In the do-whatcha-gotta-do category, he realized with dismay one day that a substantial section of a hedge on the midway was dead and it was too late to order a replacement.

"So we spray-painted the hedge green. It was so dense, I'll bet not one out of a thousand people realized it was a dead hedge."

Contact Tahree Lane at:

tlane@theblade.com



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