Next week, Lucas County voters will decide on a long list of tax requests: for schools, police and fire departments, human-services agencies, libraries, parks, road work, and the port authority. Advocates talk about the great things they’ll do if voters give them the money they seek, and the dire consequences that await if their proposals fail.
After voters approve tax issues, you tend to hear a lot less about how the money actually gets spent. But on a beautiful fall day last week, a taxpayer — this one — got a firsthand look at how Metroparks of the Toledo Area is using the proceeds of a property tax passed by county voters last year.
And I’m pleased to report that the less than eight cents a day that the tax costs the typical county homeowner is one of the best bargains around.
“The voters appreciate what we’re doing, and we want to make sure that we continue to meet their high expectations,” says Metroparks executive director Steve Madewell. He tells me the best way to describe the park system’s long-term agenda is to show it in action.
So I meet Mr. Madewell at the Wildwood Preserve off Central Avenue, which attracts more than a million visitors a year — one-third of all Metroparks users. Workers are scrambling to finish renovating the 32,000-square-foot Manor House — a new roof, window replacement and repair, fresh paint, new carpeting — before it hosts the week-long holiday display that is a Toledo tradition each December.
“You won’t recognize [the Manor House] come holiday season,” says Denise Johnson, Metroparks’ director of visitor services. “Public support makes it possible.”
Mr. Madewell cheerfully describes as “pandemonium” the atmosphere during construction at the Manor House, which includes most Metroparks offices and is a favored local venue for weddings and other social events. He points out features of the house, which was the private home of the Stranahan family for three decades but stood empty for six years before voters authorized Metroparks in 1974 to buy and develop the estate.
He is especially enamored of the indoor shooting range downstairs, now inoperative. “It’d be a gas to get it to run again,” he says.
Mr. Madewell’s deputy, Dave Zenk, joins us as we drive to other Metroparks facilities. We stop at Keil Farm, a 118-acre expanse of cornfields and grasslands smack in the middle of the otherwise less than aesthetically inspiring commercial corridor along Reynolds Road. Metroparks wants to use the farm, as well as the nearby Swan Creek Preserve and Anderson/Belt Property, as green oases amid Reynolds’ bustle.
As we drive through Side Cut park in Maumee, a deer placidly eats lunch in a grassy area next to River Road. We pass the nearby Fallen Timbers Battlefield; Mr. Zenk concedes that Metroparks needs to enhance local knowledge of the site’s history. He describes how one young woman expressed her appreciation that Metroparks named the park “after the mall.”
The north and south forks of the Wabash Cannonball Trail come together at Fallen Timbers. Nearby, Fort Miamis provides us a breathtaking view of the Maumee River and, on the other side, Fort Meigs.
At the Blue Creek Conservation Area near Whitehouse, on the site of a former workhouse for county prisoners, we watch the preparation of seeds that will become native grasses and flowering plants at other Metroparks. Jenella Hodel, the seed nursery crew leader, says the seeds she works with represent the broad diversity of plant species in the Oak Openings region.
Officials of the park system anticipate developing opportunities for people to swim and fish at a former quarry within the conservation area. Also in the area, Nature’s Nursery is restoring wild animals to health, including raptors and, on this day, a coyote.
Back in Mr. Madewell’s office, we pore over a large map of the Metroparks system. He explains that the park improvements I’ve seen — and others that are in the works at such places as the Middlegrounds in downtown Toledo — aren’t isolated initiatives.
Instead, the voter-approved tax is helping to pay for development and execution of a 20-year Metroparks strategic plan. The watchword is regional “connectivity” between the park system and Lake Erie, the Maumee River, other national, state, and local parks — and, above all, Metroparks users.
“The park system was very insular for a number of years,” Mr. Madewell concedes. “We really don’t do a good job of tying the parks together. We have big properties that aren’t fully developed.”
The planning process is designed to change that. For example, the plan seeks to link Pearson Park and Howard Farms near Lake Erie with such state and national parks and preserves as Maumee Bay State Park, Metzger Marsh Wildlife Area, and Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge.
“We’ve got 100,000 to 150,000 people coming here every year to watch warblers,” Mr. Madewell says. “Let’s create a North Coast birding trail.”
Another priority project would link the planned Westside Corridor Trail with Toledo’s Ottawa Park and the Metroparks facility I use most often, the University/Parks Trail. Mr. Madewell talks about “bundling” the restored river canal at Providence Park with the Towpath Trail, integrating them with Bend View and Farnsworth parks. Plans for the Oak Openings corridor include four separate, but linked, projects.
It’s an ambitious agenda, and a vital one. Even if you never set foot in a Metropark — and if you don’t use the parks, you’re in the distinct minority in Lucas County — you still benefit from what Mr. Madewell and his team are doing.
Studies show that preserved open space does more to increase the value of nearby property than does further development. The Metroparks improve our region’s quality of life, its appeal to residents and employers, its environment, and its public health.
“Our business model is for sustainability well into the future,” Mr. Madewell says. “We want to benefit the identity of this community. It’s a big vision, but it’s exciting.”
David Kushma is editor of The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @dkushma1