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Published: Sunday, 7/22/2012

Metroparks oases need public support

BY DAVID KUSHMA

A temperature steaming toward triple digits didn't create ideal conditions for a nature walk. Still, in just a few minutes we spotted a great blue heron, a red-tailed hawk, a juvenile hawk, a brown snake (dead), and a deer and a fawn.

All of which might not seem so unusual, except that the placid forest in which we were hiking was in the shadow of the Anthony Wayne Bridge and within walking distance of downtown Toledo. The urban oasis is one of the city's best-kept secrets -- but not for much longer, once Steve Madewell's plans come together.

Mr. Madewell is executive director of Metroparks of the Toledo Area, a job he's held since April. Last week, he guided me through the Middlegrounds, a 28-acre site along the Maumee River. The former rail yard, granary, and, more recently, dumping ground for thousands of tons of building debris will be the next Metropark, scheduled to open in fall 2015.

"This is not just a stand-alone island," Mr. Madewell told me. "This will be a staging area for activities, festivals under the bridge. It's going to continue the rehabilitation of downtown.

"We want to show the interaction that's taken place with nature over hundreds of years," he says. "Connectivity -- it's a beautiful thing."

Mr. Madewell's description of what downtown's first Metropark will include is lyrical: green space, restored natural areas, a walking trail, exhibits that describe Toledo's industrial heritage, a shelter house and central plaza, the use of retrieved city cobblestones.

But plans for the Middlegrounds, and other Metroparks initiatives, will depend greatly on how Lucas County voters respond this fall to the parks agency's likely tax request. The Metroparks board is expected this week to endorse a 0.9-mill, 10-year property tax proposal for the November ballot.

The tax would cost the owner of a $100,000 home less than $28 a year. It would raise $7 million a year, an amount equivalent to roughly half of the Metroparks' annual operating budget.

The new tax would replace a current 0.3-mill, 10-year Metroparks levy earmarked for land acquisition. So the net annual tax hike for the typical county homeowner would be about $18 -- 35 cents a week.

Money from the tax will help the Metroparks system complete projects, pursue park enhancements, and maintain essential services and educational programs, Mr. Madewell says.

"This is a very special part of the world," he says. "People want clean, safe, free, natural open space."

A recent survey by the parks agency found that about 30 percent of county residents said they had visited a Metropark in the past week. Almost everyone seems to have a favorite among the nine Metroparks. I'm on the University/Parks Trail every day. Maybe you prefer Wildwood or Oak Openings or Side Cut or Pearson or Secor.

Do we love the Metroparks enough to pay a little more for them? November's local ballot also will be crammed with tax requests from Toledo Public Schools, the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, Imagination Station, and several county agencies, as well as a separate tax plan for Toledo city parks and recreation programs. If they all were approved, the typical Toledo homeowner would pay an additional $345 a year in taxes, the Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce estimates.

Mr. Madewell concedes the danger of levy fatigue. But he says that at a time of declining local property values, reduced state and federal aid, shrinking private support, and a smaller parks work force -- even as use of the Metroparks continues to increase -- the agency needs new money to meet the demands that residents place on the parks.

He's reluctant to predict what would happen if voters reject the Metroparks levy. Such things as admission fees and closed parks wouldn't appear to be in the cards, but park maintenance and repairs could be jeopardized.

"This is a highly regarded public institution," he says of the park system. "It's essential for us to maintain the quality of service and investment this community has come to expect."

Even if you never set foot in any of the Metroparks, Mr. Madewell notes, you still benefit from them. Their conservation activities help clean the air and control storm-water runoff. The parks preserve wildlife habitats of global importance.

They are economic development tools, attracting employers and residents who appreciate their contributions to the region's quality of life. And they help control local health-care costs, by encouraging people to bike and walk and skate and run.

"This is the runningest community I've ever lived in," Mr. Madewell says.

During our tour of the Middlegrounds, a walk along a path that was once a hauling road took us to a secluded riverbank. It offers a magnificent view of not only the Maumee, but also the downtown skyline, several bridges, and East Toledo neighborhoods. Although the park area is closed off, the presence of an array of empty beer cans at the site suggested a recent social gathering.

We were joined by a weathered, tattooed gentleman on a bicycle. He expressed indignation at the litter. "Why don't people clean their s--- up?" he demanded.

Mr. Madewell suggested that when the park opens, visitors will police others' bad behavior. That seemed to satisfy the cyclist.

The Metroparks director will need to be just as persuasive in reminding voters this fall of the value of the parks he oversees. Another 35 cents a week to preserve the Metroparks' treasures sounds like too good a bargain to pass up.

In last week's column, I wrote that Gov. John Kasich says he is not inclined to expand Ohio's Medicaid program as the federal Affordable Care Act calls for, but a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month made optional. The Governor's Office of Health Transformation disputed that characterization, saying Mr. Kasich is reserving judgment on expanding Medicaid eligibility until his administration determines how state government will absorb the higher costs the health-care law will impose on Ohio in 2014 and 2015.

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com



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