Brian Zimmerman jiggles a joystick in the cabin of the green-and-yellow John Deere, raising the tractor's empty forearm and bucket.
From his glass-enclosed perch near Edgewater Beach's lakeside pavilion, an expanse of nubuck-colored sand stretches 5,000 feet, unblemished by driftwood, debris or soiled diapers.
The Cleveland Metroparks CEO would like to take the 100-horsepower big-boy toy out for a spin on this late April afternoon. "Having grown up on a farm, machinery has a special place in my heart," Zimmerman explains.
But even on this 52-degree day, there are too many people enjoying the beach for a joyride. That may have been tough to say just 12 months ago, before the Metroparks assumed stewardship for 14 miles of shoreline and 455 acres of lakefront real estate — Villa Angela, Wildwood, Euclid Beach, northern Gordon and Edgewater parks and the East 55th Street Marina. At 151 acres, Edgewater Park is the single largest parcel — and undeniably, had been the most neglected.
A cash-strapped Cleveland handed off control of the West Side park and its siblings to the state in 1978. Each park has been in steady decline since the days of Bob Taft. At Edgewater Park, all of the bathhouse's showers leaked, but none of them worked. Doors to stalls didn't lock. Picnic tables rotted on grass suffocated by 2 feet of sand.
"This is April 24," Zimmerman says. "Previously, a cleanup wouldn't happen until Memorial Day. But we want the beach in really good shape going in to the warm weather."
In 2012, the state's operating budget for Cleveland's lakefront park system was $2.2 million — or less than $5,000 per acre. The state cleaned the beaches just twice a year, according to Cleveland Ward 15 councilman Matt Zone, whose district includes Edgewater Park.
That same year, volunteers collected 3,128 cigarettes and 39 diapers from the sands of Edgewater Beach.
"I've watched this property since I first interviewed here," Zimmerman says. "This is an absolutely amazing opportunity to reconnect downtown, green space and the lake. All we saw was an opportunity to complement our 20,000 acres and really tie those things in."
Before the Metroparks assumed control of Edgewater Park, it invested $25,000 in a study conducted by Leon Younger, former executive director of the Lake Metroparks, to see what it would take to revitalize the beach. Younger interviewed 307 residents who repeated two concerns over and over: Edgewater Park was dirty and unsafe.
The tractor Zimmerman has commandeered now pulls a GPS-equipped, double-deep-freezer-sized sieve through the sand every morning. It cuts 8-inches deep, allowing granules to glide back to the beach and trapping undesirable debris in its bucket.
Last spring, just six rangers patrolled all six of Cleveland's lakefront parks. Now, four rangers patrol Edgewater Park alone.
But there's more at stake here than a place to have picnics, walk the dog or fly a kite. As the city embarks on a plan to remake its lakefront with apartments north of FirstEnergy Stadium, a school near the Great Lakes Science Center and a marina and restaurants along the East Ninth Street Pier, the Metroparks and its new Lakefront Reservation will play a major part in Cleveland's relationship with Lake Erie.
"Someday, we're going to look back on the day the [lakefront] transferred as a pivotal moment in the redevelopment of the city of Cleveland," says Cleveland Ward 8 councilman Mike Polensek.
• • • •
Zimmerman had spent the day at the Metroparks' Washington Golf Course in Newburgh Heights, then returned to his office when the alert vibrated across his iPhone.
Two Weimaraners — sleek, gray-coated athletic dogs with absurdly large floppy ears and docked tails — were available from the Great Lakes Weimaraner Rescue, just 2 miles away.
Zimmerman shuffled to his company Jeep Grand Cherokee and sped to the nonprofit. As he put his SUV into park, one of the two pups sauntered up to him and plopped down just a few feet away. That's all it took.
"I knew that was the dog," Zimmerman says.
He didn't confer with his wife, Jill, or his 11-year-old son, Carter, on the decision. He purchased the dog, named Eli, and loaded his pillow and a bag of food into the back. Only then did Zimmerman call his wife, describing the perfect dog he had found for his family.
"She asked when she could see him, and I said, 'You'll get to see him in about 15 minutes because he's in the car,' " he recalls.
Zimmerman says he isn't spontaneous, swears he's methodical and calculated in his career, but he acted with similar immediate conviction last June when the opportunity arose for the Cleveland Metroparks to take over the 455 acres of lakefront property from the state.
"There was no road map to the lakefront," Zimmerman says. "I'm not impulsive by any means, but I am very determined. And when I see something I want, or want for the agency, I'm not afraid to go after it."
He went after the Metroparks' top job with the same dedication.
When Zimmerman took the helm in 2010 from Vern Hartenburg, who retired after 22 years, he became just the sixth executive director in the Metroparks' 97-year history.
He was just 37 years old. Now 41, he maintains a boyish appeal with short, gelled hair and a well-trimmed goatee — a fast smile and an even quicker speech.
"Where some people have mapped out their life's agenda, mine ..." Zimmerman starts to say, before turning sharply to an example to illustrate the point he doesn't say outright. "When I got married, we knew we were going to California, we knew we had a car and we knew we had one place to stay. The rest of it was a free flow by talking with people about what the cool things were to do that weren't on a website."
He was the second in command for Milwaukee County's Department of Parks, Recreation and Culture, a 15,000-acre system with 156 parks, 15 golf courses, 900 staff members and 15 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, when he applied for the post in Cleveland.
Before that? He worked at a country club, golf course, bar, landscaping company, and even a security outfit, RTM, which provided in-house security for concerts and other entertainment events near Madison, Wisconsin, where Zimmerman went to college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
"Genesis, Pink Floyd, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Nine Inch Nails, Bon Jovi," Zimmerman ticks off the acts that came through.
RTM, he says, had trouble meeting payroll and eventually its parent company replaced the manager with a new guy — and Zimmerman. "We created a business model by which we could efficiently manage things," he says.
They'd hire the university's fastest cross-country runners to chase after bootleggers selling illegal merchandise outside the venues and the beefiest football players to catch crowd surfers.
For the Metroparks, he beat out two other finalists whittled from a pool of 60 nationwide applicants: Margaret Walz, then associate superintendent of the Three Rivers Park District in Minnesota's greater Twin Cities area; and Ann Zoller, then director of Cleveland's ParkWorks and executive director of LAND Studio.
"Some people want to impress you with what they know," says Bruce Rinker, the Metroparks commission's board president. "Brian just wants to get a good job done. That initiative stood out more than anything else."
Rinker recalls that even before he was offered the job, Zimmerman had immersed himself in Cleveland and neighboring communities. Within his first month as CEO, he'd met every mayor within a 50-mile radius.
"The Metroparks itself was well-oiled, but the community needed to look at itself differently," Zimmerman says of his first impression of the city. "Clevelanders have been their worst enemy — they are very much the glass is half [empty]. But my reality is that I will take a glass half full any day, because I will have the opportunity to make it full that much quicker."
• • • •
Talk to Zimmerman about the Emerald Necklace his organization is charged with preserving, and you begin to see it as a dripping crown jewel. This is no tightly knit choker. It's a chandelier bauble with beads that connect Cleveland to its neighboring cities, and now, Lake Erie to the Cuyahoga River and its tributaries.
The Metroparks stretches more than 23,000 acres along the Rocky River south past the Ohio Turnpike, over to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park and back north into Bedford, Bentleyville, Mayfield and Euclid. Its 18 reservations include Hinckley, Huntington and Bradley Woods. There are eight golf courses and a zoo nationally recognized for its new LEED-certified African Elephant Crossing. With an annual operating budget of $125 million, the Metroparks supports 650 full-time, 200 part-time and nearly 800 seasonal employees.
In November, nearly 70 percent of voters supported a 10-year, 2.7 mill levy that will raise just less than $75 million for the park system. The Metroparks has operated debt-free since its inception in 1917 — in fact, a Metroparks levy hasn't been defeated in 50 years.
"There is a balance between building new and building better and maintaining what you have," Rinker says.
Yet, without parks and properties such as Edgewater Park, the Metroparks was missing the clasp to its prized necklace — with them, it can make invaluable connections that coincide with resurging development across the lakefront.
"Any time you can blend land, water and people together, it's a magical thing," Zimmerman muses from his office, where Eli, his Weimaraner, has a pillow bed that takes up nearly as much space as his two guest chairs. "There is a very strong plan of connecting community [and] place, complementing the business, industry and the housing markets."
On the East Bank of the Flats, for example, the foundation has been laid and three stories worth of beams erected on an eight-story, 243-unit apartment building being developed by the Wolstein Group and Fairmount Properties. Entertainment venues, including Panini's and Toby Keith's I Love This Bar and Grill, will join the existing Ernst and Young Tower, Aloft Cleveland Downtown hotel and its fitness center, restaurants and parking garage in June 2015.
Meanwhile, a team led by developer Dick Pace and the Trammell Crow Co. has plans to build a new neighborhood — think more than 1,000 new apartments, stores, an office building, boardwalk and even a school — on city-owned land at North Coast Harbor, just north of FirstEnergy Stadium. The team hopes to kick off construction by 2015, starting in the shadows of the East Ninth Street Pier and Great Lakes Science Center.
Even before Zimmerman knew the Metroparks would manage the lakefront, he laid the groundwork. He tasked his full-time staff with collecting data, issuing surveys and hosting public meetings to better understand the community's concerns.
Within two years, Cleveland Metroparks 2020: The Emerald Necklace Centennial Plan became the written vision for the system's future, culled from more than 1,500 suggestions from 500 community members. Repeatedly, Zimmerman heard complaints that dimly lit restrooms reeked, that the system's website was hard to navigate and that visitors were scared of coyotes.
The park system worked with Ripple Effect Interactive (a part of Great Lakes Publishing Co., which owns Cleveland Magazine) to build a new website. Restrooms have been revamped under a commitment to a clean and safe facilities edict Zimmerman coined.
And those pesky coyotes? Zimmerman invited a nationally recognized expert to educate the public and the Metroparks staff. They discovered mice — not men — are at the greatest risk from the dog-sized predator.
But he also heard larger concerns, grander visions: The people wanted the Metroparks to dedicate an equal amount of time, resources and money to downtown Cleveland's green spaces as it does to the suburbs. They wanted more trails between reservations and public transit that would take visitors to the doorsteps of downtown parks.
They asked the Metroparks to be more active in obtaining and preserving the lakefront.
Which brings us back to the Flats, to developments throughout downtown. Because even before the Metroparks had the lakefront, the system laid plans to complete the Towpath Trail by wrapping it up the river to Wendy Park, and extending the Lake Link Trail from the Columbus Road Bridge to Whiskey Island.
"Brian has led a rejuvenating effort to not sit on the laurels of the Metroparks' assets," Rinker says, "but really find ways to put those assets to work and have a vision for a long-term reach."
• • • •
Zimmerman raises his voice above the construction din as he describes the vision for the 2.8-acre riverfront plot in the Flats dubbed Rivergate Park. He stands inside Merwin's Wharf, its centerpiece restaurant slated to open this month, surrounded by men slicing wood they'll stack to cover its aluminum exterior walls.
"The bar will be over there." He points to the center of the rectangular space to a three-sided, chest-high bar. It's already been built, even though the flooring hasn't been laid.
Glass garage doors serve as the restaurant's windows. They're pulled up today, letting cool air breeze through the space, and Zimmerman steps through one toward the river, where brick has been laid in a circle.
"And this fire pit!" he nearly squeals. "Can't you see people sitting around a fire, taking in the Cuyahoga River, enjoying live music?"
The park, around the bend of a hairpin crook in the Cuyahoga River, is just a five-minute jaunt south from the new Flats East Bank apartment complex, expected to be full of residents by next June, and a few blocks from the Aloft hotel. In the shadow of the RTA Red Line bridge and abutting the Cleveland Rowing Foundation, the park is positioned between Columbus Road and British Street — you could throw a baseball across the water and hit West 25th Street.
Soon, the green space and restaurant will share a parking lot with Crooked River Skate Park, a 15,000-square-foot, snake-shaped recreational park approved by the city.
"There is a real sense of need for the Metroparks to be much more a part of an urban fabric," Rinker says.
Inspired by the uptick in downtown residents and the promise for continued development, Leadership Cleveland, of which Zimmerman is an alum, is making a plan to reinstitute the water-taxi service that once operated along the Cuyahoga River.
The service was shuttered more than a decade ago, along with the restaurants, bars and clubs it brought people to. "We're asking: How can we create more direct connections to these lakefront parks? How can we connect the parks to each other? How can we have a system that really operates as a whole?" says LAND Studio's Zoller.
Plans are set for at least three water-taxi stations, Zimmerman says. Multiple boats will run along the river from Rivergate to Edgewater Park.
"Coming from cities that embrace lakefronts on a very different level, I was absolutely floored at seeing some of the things that we saw," Zimmerman says. "People just didn't have a good connection to our lakefront."
• • • •
Back at Edgewater Beach, Zimmerman, dressed in black slacks, red-hot sneakers and a North Face jacket — items he stores in his SUV at all times, like a portable closet — is walking along a clear sidewalk.
He points to a tree peeking out from the sand, the two-bottom-most-feet of its trunk bleached from years of being covered by sand. The sidewalks Zimmerman now walks on were swamped so deeply by sand that people didn't even know they were there.
"I've seen a total turnaround in little details," says councilman Zone, noting that not only are all those issues fixed, but their replacements are improvements. There aren't just trash cans now, for example — there are recycling bins, too.
As a part of the agreement with the state, the Metroparks received nearly $14 million in state funds to make strides and more than $16 million deferred maintenance across the coastline.
"There is a lot of hope and excitement now that the Metroparks have taken over Edgewater Park," Zone says.
As Zimmerman continues his walk, he lists other things to come: a bike box; a Thursday concert series; a concession stand operated by the system offering ice cream and alcohol; and rentals, including umbrellas, chairs, kayaks and even stand-up paddleboards. Each amenity should be available to patrons this season and make Edgewater Park more like Huntington Reservation, which the Metroparks has managed for years.
"We call this the hub, and the hub is like the spoke of a wheel coming in from the neighborhoods, pulling in Detroit Shoreway and pulling in Clifton and the downtown folks," Zimmerman says. "So we're reimagining what this space could and should look like."
The Metroparks will also make sure visitors can get to these amenities by updating the clunky six-way entrance to Edgewater Park that leads to the marina, Whiskey Island, parking lots, the sewer district's Westerly Wastewater Treatment Plant and on and off ramps to the Shoreway. They'll replace it with a four-exit roundabout that could be complete by next summer.
• • • •
As Zimmerman walks to the summit of Whiskey Island's Wendy Park, he sheds his North Face jacket to reveal a black suit, its coat flapping in the wind.
He joins four other men, including Rinker and Cuyahoga County executive Ed FitzGerald, by a podium and a blown-up map that depicts Lake Erie, the Cuyahoga River and the parks and pavement around them.
From a distance, the map's largest green chunk is Edgewater Park. To the east and south, along the river, smaller green splotches appear every few blocks.
The county and Metroparks, FitzGerald announces, have reached an agreement to transfer Wendy Park and Whiskey Island, the Flats east and west bank parks and Heritage Park One — those smaller green splotches that make an emerald trail from Edgewater Park into the Flats — to the Metroparks.
Like the river itself, several twists and turns put the land and its care in the hands of the county. But as the climate warms on the region's approach to the lakefront, giving over control could act like a beachcomber through the sand — smoothing out the blemishes and inviting opportunity.
"It didn't make sense for us to continue to be the caretaker for this very important piece of lakefront property," says FitzGerald, "especially when you have a partner in the Metroparks that has more expertise in this than we could possibly hope for."
The 60-acre Whiskey Island could transfer into the Metroparks' hands by the end of this year, Zimmerman says. As of press time, the deal was all but done — the Metroparks board and County Council members were expected to meet within a week to sign an agreement and make the transfer official.
"It coincides very strategically with our strategic plan that we crafted in the last few years," Zimmerman says when he takes the podium, "tying together our water-taxi concept, tying together our strategic inholding along the river."
The county will sell the property and its smaller parcels to the park system for $1. The Metroparks has promised to invest $6 million in improvements to the green spaces.
One improvement, Zimmerman says, could be a bike and pedestrian bridge connecting the Lake Link Trail to Wendy Park.
"This park," Zimmerman sums up, "has a real opportunity to be a game changer and really support all of the work that is going on here."