Enhancing nature: Metroparks' Zimmerman has spent past 13 years on improvements, more to come

The more than 19 million people per year who visit the Cleveland Metroparks might see oaks, butterflies, hawks, and many other works of nature. They might encounter bulldozers and forklifts, too.

The Metroparks are spending an estimated $20.5 million this year on capital projects, such as trails, boat slips, a pond, and a bear habitat. These projects follow many others in recent years, and there’s no end in sight.

The parks’ master plan calls for more improvements at each of the 18 reservations and the Metroparks Zoo, though the plan doesn’t list specific dates.

Brian M. Zimmerman, the Cleveland Metroparks' CEO, opened the Eastern Ledge Trail at Euclid Creek Reservation last fallBrian M. Zimmerman, the Cleveland Metroparks' CEO, opened the Eastern Ledge Trail at Euclid Creek Reservation last fallThe past 13 years

Since 2010, when Brian M. Zimmerman became the Metroparks’ chief executive officer, he’s boosted the number of reservations from 16 to 18, the acres by about 15% to nearly 25,000, and the trail miles by about 20% to more than 300.

He’s also overseen the addition of pavilions, observation platforms, a mountain bike park, a nature-themed playground, ziplines, visitor buildings, several zoo habitats, and much more.

Metroparks’ communications director Jacqueline Gerling said earlier this month that the capital projects help “to conserve, connect, welcome, and engage the community while continuing to sustain and innovate.”

Among many improvements, the 2010s brought Acacia Reservation and Cleveland Lakefront Reservation, Edgewater Beach House, Euclid Beach Pier, Merwin’s Wharf, the Brecksville Trailside Program Center, West Creek’s Skyline Overlook, and its Watershed Stewardship Center.

The organization secured a lease for Dunham Park in Maple Heights, a lease for Seneca Golf Course in Broadview Heights, and completed the final link in the western half of the Emerald Necklace.

Hikers view the foliage last October from atop the Eastern Ledge TrailHikers view the foliage last October from atop the Eastern Ledge TrailHighlights of the early 2020s included the openings of Brighton Park, Red Line Greenway, Wendy Park Bridge, Brecksville’s Gorge Overlook, and the northernmost stretches of the Ohio &Erie Canal Towpath.

Last year opened Canal Reservation’s bike park, Mill Stream Run Reservation’s restored Bonnie Park, and Euclid Creek’s Eastern Ledge Trail and 130-foot-high overlook. Crews also razed Acacia’s old clubhouse.

The Metroparks’ ongoing SCA Cleveland Metroparks Trail Corps program fosters young people’s interest in trail conservation and nature, and in 2021 the parks system won the “Best in Nation” Award for Excellence in Parks and Recreation Management.

This year, officials bought Ironwood Golf Course in Hinckley and plans to open 18 boat slips at Heritage and Rivergate Parks early this summer. Boaters will pay $2.50 per hour.

This summer should bring Susie’s Bear Hollow at the zoo and the Euclid Creek Greenway’s first stretch, connecting that reservation to Chardon Road and Euclid Avenue. The greenway will later be extended through a forthcoming park at the old Euclid Central Middle School site to Euclid Beach, Villa Angela and Wildwood Parks.

The all-purpose Mastic Road Connector Trail should open this fall, linking Rocky River Reservation and Fairview Park. The parks system is embarking on four green infrastructure projects this year to keep our drinking water safe and clean, with many other projects beginning later this year or over the next few years.

The former Euclid Central Middle School site is becoming a parkThe former Euclid Central Middle School site is becoming a parkThe public seems not to mind the dust. “I like all the improvements,” Robert Barr said while jogging toward Rivergate Park.

“It’s good for our community,” a woman who identified herself as Mary said while walking in Garfield Park, undergoing a $7 million renovation where a new picnic pavilion has opened, a historic pond is being restored, and an education and recreation building is coming.

Her companion, Bob, added, “Get more people out to enjoy nature.”

Jerry Car said of the restored  Bonnie Park, “It’s beautiful. We have the best parks in the country.”

Kim Movably says she is glad that Bonnie’s old dam has been removed from the East Branch of Rocky River.  “The waterfall was pretty, but on top it looked nasty. I couldn’t let the kids go in the water. Now it looks fresher and cleaner.”

Now fish and other species can navigate the East Branch, and the waters are meeting federal standards for the first time. Bonnie has also gained wetlands, trees, and an overlook (platform).

Moving forward

Three Metroparks patrons interviewed said they’d like more construction, not less. One called for more pavilions at Garfield. Two called for improved trails on the western slope of Euclid Creek Reservation.

Capital work typically accounts for 15% of the Metroparks’ budget. But local taxpayers don’t seem to mind the cost. They’ve approved every tax in the Metroparks’ 106 years and passed last November’s 10-year replacement levy by 77%—the highest figure for any tax measure in Cuyahoga County’s 226 years.

Many improvements are funded at least in part by grants and donations. The Metroparks expect about $10.5 million in such funds this year, much of it for construction. The parks also charge patrons to visit the zoo, play golf and do some other activities. With all these forms of support, the parks have never borrowed a dollar.

The Metroparks is part of a coalition planning Irishtown Bend Park on the Flats West BankThe Metroparks is part of a coalition planning Irishtown Bend Park on the Flats West BankAmong projects starting soon, Hinckley Lake should be drained on September 18 and stay dry for three years while crews fix its dam and spillway, raise its embankment, and dredge its excess silt. Late this year, construction should begin on an all-purpose Solon to Chagrin-Falls Trail from SOM Center Road to near the Deer Run cul-de-sac.

Many more improvements are on the drawing boards. In a project called CHEERS (Cleveland Harbor Eastern Embayment Resilience Strategy), the Metroparks is planning to build a recreational island off Gordon Park. And they’re part of a coalition planning Irishtown Bend Park on the western Flats, which will contain an extension of the Metroparks’ Lake Link trail.

Officials are also planning bikeways linking downtown to Slavic Village and the Opportunity Corridor. They’re planning an off-road section of the Cleveland Lakefront Bikeway from East 9th Street to East 55th Street. And they’re developing a Primate Forest at the zoo over the next nine years.

Meanwhile, the Metroparks are negotiating to lease and maintain two more municipal parks: Cleveland’s share of Gordon Park and East Cleveland’s share of historic Forest Hill Park, where John D. Rockefeller’s mansion once perched atop the first foothill of the Appalachians.

These sorts of improvements have helped the Metroparks win top honors from the American Academy for Parks and Recreation Administration five times, most recently in 2016 and 2021.

Zimmerman’s contract was recently extended through 2034.

Grant Segall
Grant Segall

About the Author: Grant Segall

Grant Segall is a national-prizewinning journalist who spent 44 years at daily papers, mostly The Plain Dealer. He has freelanced for The Washington Post, Oxford University Press, Time, The Daily Beast, and many other outlets.