Parks in Peril

The state’s green spaces need more green to function. But fresh ideas may keep them going.
The dumping bucket area at Turtle Cove, Lower Huron Metropark. Photographs Courtesy of Huron-clinton Metroparks

The next time you visit a Michigan park, slip the entrance fee inside a birthday card — though a get-well card might be just as appropriate.

Our major park systems are celebrating big birthdays — 70 years for Huron-Clinton Metroparks and 90 for the state parks — even as the economy is forcing parks officials to find creative ways to maintain our green spaces.

“We have 98 parks and recreation areas, and they are very special and unique areas in our state,” says Ron Olson, chief of parks and recreation for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “They’re great destinations for people to enjoy themselves, affordable destinations, and we’d like people to go exploring places they haven’t been before. Our revenues are all fee-based, and it’s important for people to know that.”

The state parks were cut loose from Michigan’s crumbling general-fund budget in 2004, and Olson says he doesn’t expect the parks to be restored to the state budget any time soon. The parks are spending their savings to close a sizable budget gap this year, he says, and the system can afford few improvements. A fallen bridge at Warren Dunes State Park cost $1 million to fix, taking the little money left for capital outlays. A broken roof at Ludington State Park will go unfixed for now.

“There are millions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure problems we won’t be able to address,” Olson says. “We’re planning to just patch up where we can and hope we don’t have a big emergency.”

In order to keep the parks viable, the DNR has proposed something called the Recreation Passport Bills, modeled on a program in Montana. It would eliminate resident fees for park motor vehicle permits and boating access, and replace them with a voluntary $10 fee for all Michigan motorists ($5 for motorcyclists) when renewing their license plate tabs. Montana has seen a 75-percent participation rate in its program.

Bipartisan legislation creating the plan moved out of committees in both the state House and Senate in May; votes by both chambers were expected in June. Not all Michigan parks are depending solely on the goodwill of citizens (and politicians) to stay afloat. Huron-Clinton Metroparks, a system of 13 parks spread over 24,000 acres in five counties, draws roughly half of its $74.7-million budget from residents’ property taxes. (The remainder comes from fees, investments, grants, and donations). Metroparks is in the midst of executing $17 million in major improvement projects, and the system’s director says he feels confident, even as they face revenue decreases next year.

“Five years ago, our controller and our staff sat down and we saw what was coming down the pike,” says James Bresciami, Huron-Clinton Metroparks director. “We started to do things that prepared us as we progress into a very tight economy. We decided it would be strictly repair, rehab, and replace our facilities and not bring in any grandiose facilities that haven’t been previously found in the Metroparks.”

Among the projects parkgoers will notice this summer are the replacement of the 50-year-old South Marina at Metro Beach, a new pool at Willow, a Turtle Cove water playscape at Lower Huron, and a new bathhouse and food-service building at Kensington.

Bresciami says revenue will likely drop 6 percent next year and 10 percent in the years after that due to the decrease in assessed property values. To offset those losses, the system is restructuring departments, cutting full-time positions through attrition, and prioritizing renovation projects in the parks.

Metroparks is leaning on the very concept that has bedeviled other area mainstays — from the Detroit Zoo to Cobo Center: regionalism. “The key for us in today’s society is partnerships,” Bresciami says. “You can’t just go on your own and think you can survive without partnerships.”

Bresciami says he meets annually with supervisors from each township in the Metropark system to assess needs and look for efficiencies in order to ensure the parks aren’t duplicating services. And he is seeking new collaborations. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra provides free concerts in the Metroparks; First Tee of Detroit offers golf lessons; and the Michigan Mountain Biking Association and American Cycle and Fitness provide a skills course and facility at Stony Creek.

Metroparks also partners with Oakland County to offer an annual motor vehicle pass to residents that is valid in both park systems. Oakland County Parks, created in 1966, offers 13 locations covering 6,400 acres — just a sliver of the county’s 90,000 total park acreage. This year, the Oakland County system draws $15.1 million of its $27-million budget from a quarter of a mill on property owners; the millage revenues will likely drop by $1 million next year, says Daniel Stencil, executive officer. In order to stave off cuts in services last year, the Oakland County parks devised a strategic plan that included an early-retirement option and broad department reorganization.

“The historic model was very vertical; everyone was in these little cylinders and no one really shared their resources,” Stencil says. “Now we share resources, both human and equipment, across boundaries.”

The future of Oakland County’s parks ultimately rests with the public, Stencil says. Visits to county parks have been static, at about 1.6 million every year. He says the county would like to boost that number by 75,000 annually for the next 12 years through better marketing and a continued partnership with the DNR and Metroparks to build a 350-mile trail system that loops around Oakland County.

“I think what all of the residents of Oakland County benefit from is they have lots of opportunities,” Stencil says. “Sometimes it’s not as important what park system they’re in so long as they’re in a park.”

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