When Brian Zimmerman was growing up on a farm in rural Wisconsin, he loved being outside. He just didn’t realize he could translate that energy into a profession.
This year, Zimmerman celebrates a full decade on the job as the CEO of the Cleveland Metroparks, irrefutable proof that his passion for nature, recreation, conservation, and education could be transformed into career heading up one of the most renowned parks systems in the world.
Brian Zimmerman, CEO of Cleveland MetroparksFreshWater chatted with Zimmerman about his 10-year anniversary of taking the helm of Metroparks—which turns 103 years old this week—to talk about increasing acreage, diversifying visitors, and navigating the parks during the pandemic.
How would you describe the path that led you to where you are now?
Once I realized that this outdoor life could be a profession, I actually went to school to become a golf course superintendent.
I don’t even know what a golf course superintendent is.
It’s the person who is responsible for all the grounds and greens of a golf course.
Does that mean that players blame you when their shot goes awry?
(laughs) Yes, absolutely. 100%. It’s never the pro’s fault. It’s always the superintendent’s fault.
What do you remember about your first exposure to Cleveland’s Metroparks?
It was in a grey cold day in November in 2009. I came in to interview for the job and actually spent a day-and-a-half touring the parks system before my first interview to see the breadth and scope of it all.
What were your first thoughts?
I was very impressed. We have been able continue the tradition of the leadership and the capacity of a nationally recognized and nationally acclaimed park district over these past 10 years.
Since you have taken the job, Metroparks has acquired 2,504 acres of land. At what point should the rest of Cleveland be worried about you all rising up and taking over?
We definitely do not look at it that way. We look at all of our acquisitions as a strategy benefits the economic health of the community. Cleveland Metroparks annually gives back more gives back $873 million worth of economic impact to the area, whether it be from stormwater management, carbon sequestration, the proximate principle, or travel and trouism. All of those things very postively affect the economy of Northeast Ohio.
Metroparks turns 103 years old this week. Talk about the significance of that birthday.
Now more than ever, people are realizing the value of open space. Even as we’re going through a global pandemic, here we have a 24,000-acre park system at our disposal to be able to visit, reflect, recreate, and exercise. It’s really remarkable to know that we’ve been here for over a century and we will be here for the next 100 years.
What tips do you have for visitors during the pandemic?
We’re seeing increased visitation and new users across the board. Park people can be very protective of areas they use often, so now frequent visitors are having to—for lack of a better word—share a little bit more.
We encourage people to move around a little bit, use different areas of the park system that you may not have used before. We know that people like to follow their preferred route or their usual trail, but there are 18 park reservations out there. We want to to challenge people to visit a new part of the park system they might not yet have visited.
How do you go about increasing the diversity of visitors?
We continue to offer programs, connections and opportunities that appeal to a variety of interests. We have a very large Russian population that tends to love to walk and hike. We have our Eco Explorer and Grow Up Great programs, where we take our mobile education units into underserved areas.
And we’re in the process of developing plans for a community sailing center to provide more access to our waterfront.
That ability for citizens to access the waterfront comes up a lot in conversations about desired outcomes in Cleveland. What role does Metroparks play in that?
We have become a leader in that access to water between Huntington, Edgewater Park, East 55th, East 72nd, Gordon Park, Villa Angela, Euclid, and Wildwood.
We have created a whole complement of opportunities to reconnect, not only on the lakefront but with our opportunity to connect folks—via spaces like River Gate Park or through partners at the [Cleveland] Rowing Foundation—all to make sure that people have the opportunity to connect with water if they so choose.
Over the past 10 years, Metroparks has had nearly 50,000 volunteers, with over 1.2 million volunteer hours. How important are volunteers to your operations?
We’re extremely blessed with individuals, groups, and corporations that continue to support Cleveland Metroparks’ mission of conservation, education, and recreation. They help do everything from being trail ambassadors, to serving on Zoo volunteer teams, to our docents. We have such wonderful community support.
What are the barriers standing in front of you to achieve more success with the parks system?
We continue to talk about relevancy. One of the things in this digital age is figuring out how can we get people to disconnect for even just an hour and spend time in the realm of the natural: hiking, biking, kayaking, golfing, any of those types of opportunities to disconnect a little bit.
There are also barriers to time. There are only so many things you can accomplish in a day and we want to make sure that we stay relevant and top of mind for people to come out and take a few moments to celebrate nature.
Let’s do a lightning round. First words or phrases that pop into your head. Ready?
Euclid Beach Pier.
Cleveland Metroparks Zoo Rhino ReserveWhat big projects are on the horizon?
In June, we opened a new rhino habitat at the Zoo. We’re working on over $20 million worth of trail and trail connections to connect downtown to various communities and community centers. And we continue to look at ways to protect land in various communities.
For someone who has yet to visit Cleveland Metroparks, where should they start?
The first reservation that you should visit is Rocky River. It really has something for everyone. It has the Emerald Necklace Marina which has a full-service restaurant. It has a boat dock facility. It has an ADA accessible kayak launch. We have a world class and the busiest nature center in the Metroparks family. We have the wonderful thing called Fort Hill Stairs. We have a very unique opportunity with a horse stables there. We have great picnic shelters. We have a great number of trails. Rocky River is one of our flagship reservations.
Sing the praises of those who work for Metroparks.
They are the ones who tirelessly work to make everything happen for the public. I couldn’t be more proud of the entire family here at Metroparks. They continue to grow and develop and evolve to make the community better.
Finally, as a former golf grounds supervisor, what are your favorite golfing holes in the Metroparks?
#2 at Sleepy Hollow, which is probably the toughest par-3 arguably in the state.
#8 at Seneca is a monster. That’s the one where you say, “Pack a lunch” because it’s one of the longest holes.
But some of the best views are hole #9 at Mastick Woods, or hole #17 at Manakiki. You’re definitely going to want to get out there and check them out.