GIBSONBURG, Ohio - Growing up, Steve Gruner assumed he'd be a dentist someday.
His father was a dentist. So was his grandfather. And his mother worked in the family business too, as a hygenist.
"My nickname since I can remember was 'Little Doc,' " Mr. Gruner recalled. "It was ingrained in me: 'You're the next dentist. You're the next dentist.' "
But after enrolling in the predentistry program at Ohio State University, Mr. Gruner decided to pursue his love of the outdoors and study to become a park ranger. With trepidation, he told his father about his new career plans.
"His response was, 'That's what we always thought you should have done anyway,' " Mr. Gruner said.
More than three decades later, his change of heart seems to have worked out fine. As director of the Sandusky County Park District, Mr. Gruner, 47, oversees 11 employees and more than 1,800 acres of open space and recreational facilities, including a bike trail, a riverfront canoe launch, and a quarry that attracts swimmers, fishermen, and scuba divers.
"I consider my job to be the best job in Sandusky County," he said.
Mr. Gruner, who joined the park district in 1980 and became its top official in 1987, has been named
"Professional of the Year" by the Ohio Parks and Recreation Association. He'll be honored at a luncheon Feb. 8 at the SeaGate Centre in downtown Toledo.
Observers say Mr. Gruner has a talent for stretching dollars, enlisting, and forming partnerships to expand and upgrade the district's facilities and services.
"For at least 25 years, he's been committed to advancing parks and recreation, not just for Sandusky County, but a lot of his work has regional impact as well as statewide impact," said Michelle Park, executive director of the Ohio Parks and Recreation Association. "He's just steady, has great vision, and does so much with so little."
The park district has a budget of about $900,000 a year, roughly half of which comes from a 0.5-mill property tax. The rest of the funding comes from donations or grants - something Mr. Gruner said has been critical to the park district's recovery from a financial crisis that threatened its existence in the late 1980s.
The park district was down to Mr. Gruner and one other employee in 1989 after voters defeated two proposed levies. Mr. Gruner said he and a volunteer committee surveyed residents to see what they wanted from the park district and developed a 10-year plan to beef up programming while decreasing the system's reliance on local tax dollars.
The new approach persuaded residents to pass a 0.5-mill, 10-year issue in 1989, and a replacement levy a decade later.
The stable funding and partnerships with community groups have allowed the park district to restore wetlands, expand camping and boating facilities, and help construct the North Coast Inland Trail, a partially finished bike path that eventually will run from Clyde in eastern Sandusky County to Millbury in northern Wood County.
The park district won nearly $2 million in grant funds last year from the Ohio departments of natural resources and transportation to build a 10.5-mile section of the trail from Fremont to Elmore.
More than $460,000 in grant funds allowed the park district to buy more than 300 acres of farmland near Lindsey in 2004.
Part of that site is being turned into a 1930s-era demonstration farm.
As part of the project, members of the Sandusky County Restorers of Antique Power are helping to rehabilitate a pair of 1870s barns.
"Steve's very good about coming up with these ideas, and of course he's got good help," said Richard Flahiff, a member of the antique power group. "He seems to be very knowledgeable about what works for people, what they want in a park district."
Mr. Gruner said the park district's staff, volunteers, and donors deserve most of the credit.
"My philosophy has always been, surround yourself with good people and good things will happen," he said.
Contact Steve Murphy at: email@example.com or 419-724-6078.41.38454 -83.32072