VAN BUREN, Ohio - For avid horseback riders, Van Buren State Park is one of the best places around to ride wooded trails and, by summer's end, to camp where their animals can spend the night and freely roam close by.
News that the Ohio Department of Natural Resources wants to turn over the state park to the Hancock Park District is nothing short of distressing to many area residents.
“When I moved here, I looked at a map and was wonderfully shocked and surprised to see there was a state park this close that had horse trails,” said Andrea Gadomski, a member of the Wood County chapter of the Ohio Horseman's Council.
“It's a nice park. You've got shade along the northeast side. You can ride along the river bottom, see the natural life and deer. You see geese, ducks, all that stuff. It's just a nice, relaxing way to spend some time,'' she said.
The group has worked with the state to clear and maintain nearly 11 miles of trails through the wooded park and to develop a horse rider's camp.
Now, members are collecting signatures on petitions and writing letters to legislators and state park officials in an attempt to keep Van Buren a state park. They fear they will lose all that they've worked for if Van Buren becomes a county park.
“From our point of view, it's been a wonderful working relationship,” Ms. Gadomski said.
The state, for its part, says it simply wants to see if the county park district can do a better job with Van Buren, which is among the least-visited state parks in Ohio. The Hancock Park District has formed a committee to examine the offer, but has made no commitment.
Dan West, state parks chief, said this isn't the first time the state has approached the park district about managing Van Buren. And, with a $3.5 million slash to the park system's $45 million budget for next year, he said it was time to revisit the issue.
“We're not saying it's not a great little park,” Mr. West said. “I think the bottom line is, can we still provide a similar level of service? Can we in the recreation business, whether it be the state or a local operation, what is the most likely way to make sure we give good service to the public? It's very preliminary.”
While the division of parks and recreation is looking at ways to cut costs and streamline operations at nearly every state park, Van Buren stands out as a candidate to convert to a local park because it primarily attracts local residents, and the Hancock Park District has a proven record for managing parks, Mr. West said.
“That park is probably more of a local park rather than a regional or statewide operation,” Mr. West said. “It's nothing like a Maumee Bay or a Hocking Hills or some of the other parks in the area. Mostly it's a day-use operation.”
And, it's not heavily used as state parks go. Of the more than 50 million visitors to Ohio's 73 state parks last year, only about 86,000 or 0.15 percent stopped at Van Buren.
“They're at the bottom of the list in terms of visitation. They have been for years,” Mr. West said. “I'm not saying it doesn't get campers from the interstate, but the people who use it on a daily basis are local.”
While just a mile or so off I-75, not far from the Hancock-Wood county line, the 296-acre park seems remote. There are few signs for those who don't know exactly how to get there.
And it has suffered over the years from a lack of funding from the state to modernize and improve the facilities. A few years ago, Van Buren State Park was known as a haven for illicit sexual activity - a problem state and local officials say has all but disappeared because of a crackdown by local law enforcement agencies.
Tim Brugeman, director of the Hancock Park District, said the park is a great place, but he's not sure the district can afford to take it on. He said he lived in Van Buren for years and got to know every inch of the sprawling park and wildlife area.
“The fall color is beautiful. The spring wildflowers are breathtaking. There is so much wildlife here,” he said during a recent interview at the park.
The offer has its advantages: the park district has no facilities in northern Hancock County, the land most likely would be transferred at no cost to the district, it's a historically important natural resource, and it's a popular spot for horseback riders. Mr. Brugeman said it definitely fits in with the kinds of natural areas the park district is charged with preserving.
A 12-member citizens committee appointed by the Hancock Park District is gathering public input as well as information about what it would take to operate Van Buren State Park. The group held its first meeting Thursday with plans for four public meetings this summer, including an open house at the state park Aug. 9.
Mr. Brugeman said the cost of operating and maintaining the park clearly is the No. 1 issue.
“Part of our charge is the conservation of natural resources and this is an important natural resource of our county,” he said. “We were always hoping the state would take care of it and pay for it, but reality sets in. We have to look at what we would have to give up in the future to take care of it.”
The park district operates on $1.3 million a year - nearly $1 million of which comes from a voter-approved 0.8-mill tax levy. It has 14 full-time, three part-time, and 11 seasonal employees. And while it relies on volunteers to help with maintenance, clearly it would need to add staff if it took over the park.
“We would have to reorganize some of our thinking on park management and how we spread our crews around,” he said. “But we could not do it without hiring a couple people. This is too big and important an area.”
Mr. West said the state allocates about $175,000 a year to operate Van Buren, which shares a manager with Mary Jane Thurston Park near Grand Rapids.
Mr. Brugeman expressed concern about the condition of a dam the state built at the park and the condition of Van Buren Lake, which is becoming so silted it might need to be dredged in places. Both projects represent “enormous costs,” Mr. Brugeman said.
But state officials say they have no intention of sticking the local park district with large financial liabilities. Any agreement to transfer or lease the property to the park district would have to be mutually agreed upon and mutually beneficial, Mr. West said.
“We don't want in any way to leave them with something they can't manage. That's not the reason we would turn it over,” he said. “The question is, can they do a better job since they reside right there? Given the fact that they're an experienced park district, is there some benefit for them in taking that operation over?”
Mr. Brugeman said the citizens committee expects to make a recommendation by September to the board of park commissioners, who will make a decision and let state officials know the same month. In the meantime, the horseman's council stopped working on a bridge it was building from the trails to the camp the state is building.
“We're also trying to get some money raised for official trail markers - assuming it's going to stay a state park,” Ms. Gadomski said. “We're willing to put our time and money into that park if we're allowed to use it.”
Mr. West said he understands the group's concerns, but he has to look at the big picture.
“In the end the thing we want to make sure is that we provide the same or better level of service to Ohioans. That's the bottom line. If we can do it just as well or they can do it better, that's fine. There are no egos here.”