Sept. 9, 2021

#40: Brian Zimmerman (Cleveland Metroparks)

Brian Zimmerman — CEO of The Cleveland Metroparks — on leading the renaissance of Cleveland’s most beloved hidden gem, the Cleveland Metroparks. We cover the history of the Metroparks, the importance of nature and preservation, and how he and his team ha

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Our conversation this week is with Brian Zimmerman — CEO of The Cleveland Metroparks. 

As CEO of the Metroparks, Brian is responsible for the management of over 24,000 acres of green space in Northeast Ohio including 18 park reservations, eight golf courses, and the nationally-acclaimed Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, roughly 1000 employees, hundreds of miles of parkways and trails serving roughly 40 million visitors annually. 

Brian has helped lead the Park District’s highest rate of land acquisition under any Cleveland Metroparks leader in the park’s 104-year history aside from the Metroparks' founder, William Stinchcomb. Under Brian's leadership, Cleveland Metroparks has been recognized nationally through several agency awards including the 2016 National Gold Medal Award for Excellence in Park Management by National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), the highest national honor in parks and recreation.


It is quite awesome to learn about the history and diversity of all the work that goes into maintaining and preserving what so many of us here in Cleveland value and treasure in the nature afforded by the Metroparks. Please enjoy my conversation with Brian Zimmerman.



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Brian Zimmerman [00:00:00]:

You know, parks can be the great equalizer, right? I mean, they don't know race, creed, color, religion, socioeconomic background. They don't know any of these things. And they're there for you when you need them the most. But to know that we have this capacity as a regional form of government to go through and with different communities that can't sometimes work together, we have the ability to thread things through communities in a very different way. And so we continue to help as much as we possibly can. We're working with the city of Solen and the village of Bentleyville on a trail concept. We're working on how do we continue to extend from Edgewater Park? And some are a little bit more challenging than others, but the opportunity there to make this connection is going to be really a unique opportunity.

Jeffrey Stern [00:00:43]:

Let's discover the Cleveland entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Jeffrey Stern [00:00:46]:

We are telling the stories of its.

Jeffrey Stern [00:00:48]:

Entrepreneurs and those supporting them. Welcome to the Lay of the Land podcast, where we are exploring what people are building in Cleveland. I'm your host, Jeffrey Stern, and today we are talking about one of my favorite things, what I would call Cleveland's natural respite. When I think about my time here in Cleveland, there are few things that genuinely instill the amount of joy and of serenity as the Metro Parks do. As many guests on the podcast have pointed out before me, they are a genuine treasure here in Cleveland. And so with that, it was just a real delight to speak with Brian Zimmerman, who is the CEO of the Cleveland Metro Parks. As Chief Executive Officer of the Metro Parks, brian is responsible for the management of over 24,000 acres of green space in Northeast Ohio, including 18 park reservations, eight golf courses, and the nationally acclaimed Cleveland Metro Park Zoo. Roughly 1000 employees, hundreds of miles of parkways and trails serving roughly 40 million visitors annually. And Brian has helped lead the park district's highest rate of land acquisition under any Cleveland Metro Parks leader in the park's 104 year history. Aside from the Metro Parks founder himself, william Stinchcomb. And under Brian's leadership, cleveland Metro Parks has been recognized nationally through several agency awards, including the 2016 National Gold Medal Award for Excellence in Park Management by National Recreation Land Park Association, the highest national honor in parks and recreation. It is quite awesome to learn about the history and diversity and all of the work that goes into maintaining and preserving what so many of us value.

Jeffrey Stern [00:02:32]:

And treasure in the nature afforded by Cleveland Metro Parks.

Jeffrey Stern [00:02:36]:

So with that, please enjoy my conversation with Brian Zimmerman.

Jeffrey Stern [00:02:45]:

So I wanted to preface our conversation today just by expressing gratitude for the Metro Parks. I have a closing question for everyone who's come on the podcast so far.

Jeffrey Stern [00:02:56]:

Which is to ask what their favorite.

Jeffrey Stern [00:02:58]:

Hidden gems in Cleveland are. And without a doubt, of the nearly 50 conversations with founders and entrepreneurs I've recorded, so far, the Cleveland Metro parks are people's favorite thing in Cleveland. For me, personally, they are just this refuge from technology and screens and this genuinely beautiful haven in nature. And so in preparing for this conversation, I came to the realization that you genuinely may have one of the coolest jobs in the whole country here. And I also came to the realization that while I hold the Metro Parks in my mind in the highest regard for things Cleveland has to offer, I had very little understanding of all the work that you do and your organization does to steward them the underlying infrastructure for how you manage and support them, and really, like the history of the Metro Parks and how we've got into where we are today. And so, again, very appreciative for you coming on and sharing the story here.

Brian Zimmerman [00:03:53]:

Well, again, thanks for having me. It's always neat to tell the story, and I don't know if I should be concerned that people think we're still a hidden gem. Our marketing team, I think, does a fantastic job telling our story. But really, with over 19.6 million annual visitors, world class zoo, eight golf courses, 18 park reservations, more than 24,000 acres, really, it's something that has grown from the very first three acres. William Stinchcoin, our founder, was challenged by Tom Johnson. He brought in the Olmstead brothers, and they really envisioned this interconnected and what the called by the time an emerald necklace, and certainly the emerald necklace has been used in Boston, it's been used as a moniker for green space that's connected. I would say Cleveland has done an absolutely fantastic job of connecting green space to people. We are now serving not only Cuyahoga County, but we have land in Lake Lorraine, Giaga, Medina, and Summit counties. We have land in 50 municipalities here in Cuyahoga County alone. One of our long term visions is connect more green space in communities that we have not served. That is really our long term strategy. We are now 104 years old, which is hard to believe.

Jeffrey Stern [00:05:00]:

It is incredible. I will preface that the hidden gems part is more like there's always something very niche about the metro parks, like the Willow Tree Land Edgewater or a particular waterfall in a given metro park by the national parks. They're always very niche. But I think everyone is well aware of the metro parks here, but to the history. So I realize people don't maybe think the metro parks is something that were founded in the way that a typical startup today is founded. But I'd love to kind of hear the founding story going back those 100 or so years, if you will, for the Metro parks and begin to explore the history of how they actually came to be.

Brian Zimmerman [00:05:39]:

I think there's a couple of ways to look at really, the challenge. William Stinchcomb, our founder, lived right near here. He was off the Clark Avenue. He did work for Mayor Tom Johnson. He was really a self taught engineer. He helped design the Detroit Superior Bridge. That's one of his big projects. He helped do one of the beach houses at Edgewater when it was still a city park. It was a city and then run by the state up until 2013. But the founding really goes back to well before 1917. It took about three years. It took the help of civic leaders that include the Stauffers and a whole host of other very familiar names with the city of Cleveland. But this idea of parks as a place for conservation of land and 1545 park districts, so that's what we're called. We're under Ohio revised code. So we're a separate political subdivision of the state of Ohio against 15 45 21, which allows for the creation of park districts. Our challenge is to conserve and preserve land in Ohio. It falls under the auspices of the probate court. There's only been nine probate judges in the history of the metro parks, which goes over 104 years. Our current probate judge is Anthony J. Russo. He is the only elected official elected by the people. People often ask, why the probate court? Well, more than 100 years ago, that was the thing that was consistent in all 88 counties, and they settled land disputes. We are designed to conserve land, and therefore that's where the appointing authority has laid. Now for 104 years, the probate judge appoints three commissioners. They serve at the pleasure. They serve rotating three year terms. They serve as a president, vice president, vice president. They have 33.33% power. We do all of our meetings in public. We meet once a month. On the third Thursday, they appoint the CEO, secretary of the board, and the CFO treasurer of the board again. So that's kind of the genesis more than 100 years ago. What's really interesting is the founding city was Euclid Township. That actually brought the legislation forward to the State House for the creation of the 1545 park districts.

Jeffrey Stern [00:07:45]:

It is an incredible story. When I was reading about William Stancoma, I came across a quote that man is an outdoor animal and needs to be connected to nature. And I just love the idea of that quote. And I'd love if you kind of speak to how maybe the philosophy or the concept of the metro parks has evolved or stayed constant from kind of the initial vision, laid out land. How you think about it today?

Brian Zimmerman [00:08:07]:

Well, he was honestly well before his time, and that statement still sits in a lot of our publications. He served the community more than 50 years in various capacities between the city and the metro parks. There's only been five others that include myself that have run this park district. Consistency is a main theme, but having this connection in nature and let's just think 2020, the year of the pandemic. Record visitation, 19.6 million visitors. And what were we told? We were told to socially distance. Well, where could you do that? The best you could do that in the parks. And we saw new people, old people, young people, all different types of people come out to the parks. And whether they were using the golf courses, whether they were using one of the all purpose trails. When we got the zoo back open, we did the drive through concept. But that connection to nature. They talk now about forest bathing. That's just a connection to nature that's getting out. And you said it, Jeffrey, this morning when we first started about dropping the screens, dropping the phones, unless you're using the app, of course, to find your way through the park, but to limit screen time, really, that's to enjoy nature. And whether you see juvenile Redtailed Hawk or this morning on my walk in millstream, I got to see an affiliated woodpecker and a juvenile Redtail Hawk and a cardinal. So if you just take the time to walk softly, you'll hear lots of different things in the forest.

Jeffrey Stern [00:09:29]:

Yeah, it is a special place, for sure. When you reflect on your own professional career, how is it that you came to be in the position that you are? Where does your own interest in the space come from? And what's the story of how you got to run the Metro parks here?

Brian Zimmerman [00:09:45]:

It's an interesting journey, honestly. I grew up on a big farm south of Madison, Wisconsin. Went to Wisconsin, got a degree in soil sciences. But I worked on golf courses for a lot of years, and I really enjoyed the same type of concept of being outside. Being behind a desk wasn't necessarily where I wanted to end up. Here. I get a nice blend, obviously, but I spent time in Milwaukee for a number of years. I spent time in Michigan. I got recruited to go back to Milwaukee to run 16 municipal golf courses that were in financial struggle. They had a huge challenge. They were to be contracted out, and we were able to save them from being contracted out. We actually got them to turn a profit within about three years. I got asked to run 156 parks, parking structures, marinas, yacht clubs, a whole host of other different things in the city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County proper. I interviewed for this job in 2000, land Nine, and came to be the head of it in 2010. And what I always tell people is I never said no to an opportunity. And that was, I think, the impetus for coming here. When I was 37, the youngest to take over the park system long term leadership. Verne Hartenberg. Served 22 years. William Cinchcomb served, I think, 30 plus, close to 40 years in totality. So a lot of consistency here. And what I really love about it is the vision for the park just continues to grow. Our goal is to connect more people, to provide more diverse opportunities. This past year, we were honored with by far the best award that, in my opinion, we could get besides our gold medals, which is for the best park district. But we won an innovation award from NRPA in social equity. And to me, that was a big step forward for this institution to really put trails and trails forward in the city of Cleveland. We own over 1500 acres in the city of Cleveland, which most people don't actually know, and we continue to strive and find more ways to connect community place in this community. I think we're doing as best we can.

Jeffrey Stern [00:11:45]:

Yeah, I definitely want to do a deeper dive on the connectivity component of it, but just from kind of the business land tactical perspective, when you talk about kind of the ownership of land, I'm curious how the Metro parks are financed. How does that acquisition kind of transpire and the nature of kind of the inner workings of the organization there, if you will?

Brian Zimmerman [00:12:06]:

Well, it is a good question. I would say Ohio Park districts in general are the envy of the country. And why do I say that when they were founded, there was actually the ability to levy a property tax. And here in Cuyahoga County, we have a property tax levy that is up every ten years. The next property levy tax levy opportunity will be in 2022. We have remained debt free. So we are 104 years old and we have remained debt free. What it means for a taxpayer in Cuyahoga County, if you have $100,000 valued house, you pay $100 a year for the park district. And so that is how we are financed for 60% of our revenue. The remaining comes in the buckets of 30 and 1030 percent of earned revenue. So places like the Cleveland Metro Park Zoo, Cleveland golf courses, the marinas, the parking lots, our restaurants, all of those things bring about 30% of it, and then 10% comes to your grants and donations. Land, now, that's something that you can't always put your finger on of what you will be receiving. But there is a good portion of that that does come from Clean Ohio funds, which help preserve land. That's one of our big buckets of funding that comes through land. We always say if we don't get it, we don't spend it. And so that is a little bit elastic. It can move on a year to year. When we received the Tiger grant, which really worked on reconnecting the trails, so it's transportation investment, generating economic recovery. That was the $7.9 million grant that had leveraged. $5 million of funding from the Cleveland Foundation, 3 million from the Wendy Park, 2 million from the Gunn Foundation, million dollars from the state Capitol. And a host of others brought funds forward through NOACA, through the trails congestion mitigation and air quality grant. So lots of different ways, but it is really 60, 30, 1060 percent property taxes. We were affirmed the last time at 70% in 2013, when our last levy went forward again, I think the moniker that we had then was fiscal responsibility, asset protection, and it's really 60% of our revenue. So that's that's really what we've really strived to stay on track with.

Jeffrey Stern [00:14:13]:

And you mentioned our park district here is kind of the envy of the rest of the country in some ways, and it is because it's a consequence of how we're financed in that way.

Brian Zimmerman [00:14:22]:

Well, it is, because a lot of park districts where I came from, milwaukee was what they call in the GF, the general fund. And when things got tight, parks were one of the first things to get cut because we were a non mandated service. What the beauty of it here is in Ohio is that the voters vote on whether they want a high quality park system. And I think, to your point, when you let in, it's like, what do people talk about? They talk about the metro parks. Grant Gilbert, who I got to know, who's working with the cavs at rocket mortgage fieldhouse, he hadn't heard much of the park district, and all of his friends kept saying, the park district, the park district. We called me one day. He goes, now I know why. He goes, I'd biked over to edgewater, and he goes, that's really pretty phenomenal. So he's new to town. I love to hear those stories of it, just like, hey, I found the park district. There are stories of Baldwin Wallace recruiting people from Wisconsin, where I'm from, more. They were up in the eau Claire area, and they were just like, well, how about we take a tour through the metro parks? And they're like, what is that? And each one of them that went through the metro parks ended up taking the job. They're just like, we didn't know that this green space existed. I think a lot of people have this kind of self determined image of what the park district or what Cleveland looks like, and some come up with this, you know, old industrial rust belt city, and I can tell you, it's nothing near like that. When we hosted the republican national convention in 2016, the resounding comment was, I had no idea this was Cleveland land. People wanted to come back. So whether it was the rock hall, whether it was the park system, all of our wonderful sports teams, this is a unique blend of opportunity here. Our playhouse square district, university circle, our institutions that are out there. It's really a pretty remarkable city that we should all be proud of.

Jeffrey Stern [00:16:00]:

Yeah, I am with you there. I find whenever people come to visit Cleveland who don't have that familiarity with it, there is a pleasant surprise that comes with the visit to Cleveland just through the amenities in the city and the metro parks as well, really is kind of a selling point.

Jeffrey Stern [00:16:16]:


Brian Zimmerman [00:16:16]:

And there's so many different things to do. I think to the point is that it's not just a singular park opportunity. You can start at Detroit Avenue via our Emerald Necklace Spring and go 34 miles on a bike on a trail, and you can end up on the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. And then you can use the tow path that you can go almost 100 miles north and south that will take you back into the city of Cleveland or down to Akron Canton area, which is actually really pretty remarkable to have that much interconnected trail systems here.

Jeffrey Stern [00:16:44]:

Yeah, it is pretty remarkable. And we can use that as a segue, I think, to talk about connectivity, because part of it is the geographic proximity you have to these parks, I think in terms of the vision that you have in connecting people. But one of the things that I've realized as well, it's really the breadth of activities that the metro parks have to offer to the people of Cleveland as well. There's really an extraordinary amount of things that fall under the jurisdiction of the metro parks, and you've mentioned a handful of them already from the zoo. But even the water taxi and kind of infrastructure building that's happening, I know the red Line Greenway just opened, which is about a block from my house, which is wonderful, and the Wendy Park Bridge to the Whiskey Island Trail land, all that development there's really like a breadth of things. So how do you think in terms of kind of that geographic proximity but also the breadth of activities? When you think about connectivity?

Brian Zimmerman [00:17:38]:

I think it's unique to think of the park district in so many different ways. The original nine reservations that include Huntington, Euclid, Rocky River, rocky river continued south until they renamed part of it Millstream Run Reservation, brexville over 4000 plus acres. But the reawakening, I think to a certain degree, when the metro parks took over the Lakefront parks lawn looked at as an asset, but most recently really more of a liability to the community land. The liability, what I mean by it is you drive by land, there was no one using the green space. And to me that was a complete tragedy, knowing full well that in every other city land, I'd say that clearly in almost every other city parks don't look like that on a waterfront land. To look at the opportunity cost to change the narrative here in Cleveland Edgewater Park is one of those success stories. East 55th, east 72nd, Gordon Park, Villa, Angela, Euclid, Wildwood, all of those have come online and really, I think, changed the narrative of being a lakefront community. Now, having said that, you had mentioned the red line greenway, the Connecting Cleveland plan, and why that was so successful is because it connected disparate areas that didn't have access, whether it be the Metropolitan Housing Authority, the opportunity there to see the water, but not to actually be able to get to the water. Cleveland has done the bike way that goes along the shoreway. All of those things have been additive to the community that I think really gives a sense of place. And when you talk about being able to hop on a bike and to be able to go, I mean, you can literally wrap around the city now. Land ultimately our goal is to connect east 9th street to east 55th street with the city, with the county, with the Port Authority and a host of others. But then you've got this wonderful loop to go all the way out to MLK, which is where our wonderful cultural gardens are. That is talk about a hidden gem. Those are absolutely beautiful. You don't see those in a lot of other communities in that linear of a fashion with that old mature park system, that old mature feel, but then going out to the institutions, and then when the city completes a few of the connections back into downtown. This is a really big deal for this community. Now, certainly there's a grander vision. There's a grander vision. Do we connect? How do we connect the seas, Cleveland to Columbus to Cincinnati? That would be fantastic. We've had conversations with folks in Pennsylvania. How do we connect to the Allegheny, how do we continue to go east there? Marcy captor's office has talked about how do we connect to Toledo through a lakefront connection. So I will tell you there's more to come, more opportunity as we continue to look at these wonderful, unique opportunities. But our goal is to be within a ten minute ride, walk, bike to a park green space. That is one of our ultimate goals.

Jeffrey Stern [00:20:22]:

I love that goal. I guess when you think through these opportunities, I guess a quick step back. When I think about the role of the CEO, I think about setting a vision, inspiring to buy into that vision and charting the organization's path through the risks. Land the opportunities for the business. And so I get a sense for kind of the opportunities and the vision. But I'm curious how you think about the risks or the challenges for the metro parks. And maybe to start, I'm curious how you kind of regulate the use of the metro parks versus balancing promotion and marketing, land use of the metro parks versus kind of the ecological conservation piece of it.

Brian Zimmerman [00:21:00]:

It's an interesting balance. Some parks are more well loved than others, and I mean that affectionately. The challenge sometimes is that our ecosystem can't necessarily handle as many people that have come through them. Here's a great example. Through the pandemic, we closed parts of the parks in an effort to actually keep them open because we were so full. Now, the balance on the ecosystem, meaning the terrain, the topography, those have been challenging. But most recently, almost ten years now, ralph Petrano and a trails crew have been here with the help of the park managers really looking at how do we return a lot of these earth and trails that very frankly were old farm roads or old farm trails or deer trails. And they don't necessarily follow the topography as well. So they've custom blended some materials that actually bind and hold better through the different rains. The freeze saw cycles and instead of in a great example is up on the top of Fort Hill at Rocky River. You could almost drive a semi through not really, but wide as a semi. And now we've worked to narrow the trails land to narrow the footprint and narrow the impact. But you'll also see pushes and pulls on just the ecosystem. For a while we had a challenge with the equestrian community. A tremendous amount of miles are ridden here in this community from the horse community. But quite a few of the were going off trail and they were really damaging the ecosystem hinckley in particular. So we really worked very hard at rebalancing that rebuilding trails and opportunities to fix those areas. And so there is a very unique balance between our natural resources team. We have one of the best in the country. We have aquatic biologists, we have wildlife ecologists. We're working on our forest floor studies, some of the invasive plant management, certainly the influences of that. We're doing a carbon credit project. We've taken a look at South Sugar and reservation. We've actually taken out more trees in an effort to promote new forest growth. So there's a lot of very unique things that are going on with the ecosystem. Really trying to make sure that we're sustainable, really working on reinvesting in our lungs, which are the trees, the filters, which are our natural resources areas that include the marshes, the wetlands, the kettles. So we've really done a lot of things to protect those things for the future.

Jeffrey Stern [00:23:20]:

Yeah, building on that a little bit more. On the macro level, how do you think about climate change and pollution? And maybe to start with a specific thing, do you lament or worry about the condition of Lake Erie? How do those kinds of more macro level issues play into your thinking and how you think about the preservation and conservation of the metro parks?

Brian Zimmerman [00:23:44]:

I think we should all be worried. I mean, when you think at the balance of the ecosystem, the pressures, the pavement, the amount of impervious surface, the amount of garbage that gets flowed into numerous areas, they talk about the microplastics. I'm not so sure even how to when I remembered I'm 48 seasons, right? Kind of definitive seasons that you could set your clock to. This was winter, this was spring, this was summer. And we have like swinters now where things are just kind of blended together. We can have a 65 degree day and then we can have snow the next day. And so I firmly believe the ecosystem has definitely changed. I've had the opportunity to speak at international conferences, land the talk about the permafrost coming out and they talk about the rising in sea levels. Those are real things that are actually happening to our ecosystem. And so the mindfulness of it is extremely important. That's why we're working so hard on restoring our forest floors. Our forest canopies here. We have an opportunity of riches here in not only northeast Ohio, but in this Great Lakes region. Whether it's Wisconsin, Michigan, anybody, any late, any state that connects to the lakes. To have this amount of fresh water is something that we need to protect long term. And that is an extremely important asset resource for this region. When you look at the wildfires in California, you look at the floods in Germany, you look at the floods in New Orleans, there are some huge challenges, but we're a little bit more insulated up here. But having said that, we need to make sure we're taking care of it. To have 24,000 acres to be able to impact that is actually real. And so we do what we can each and every day to be part of the solution.

Jeffrey Stern [00:25:29]:

Yeah. So you mentioned not only the breadth of activities, but I think the breadth of staffing and employment responsibilities. That the Metro Parks has a whole variety of roles that you need to staff and core competency that you need to have to manage the scope of this project. You mentioned some of the roles already, but I am curious. I think there's close to 1000, maybe with part time, full time.

Jeffrey Stern [00:25:54]:

But what does the organization look like.

Jeffrey Stern [00:25:56]:

And how do you manage the employment and staffing of it?

Brian Zimmerman [00:26:01]:

Well, we manage it carefully, but there is about 950 FTE equivalents and that can blend throughout the year. In previous years we've had 14 1500 seasonals on staff. Most recently it's been a little bit more challenging with people entering and exiting the workforce at different levels. But to hire veterinarians down to, again, wetland ecologists, to golf course superintendents, golf professionals, clubhouse managers, restaurant managers, marina managers, it's a challenge, but it's fun. It's a unique opportunity. We have five represented unions within the confines of the Cleveland Metro Parks employees. So we work with all of those. We do operate 365 days a year and that is a challenge. We have a full time police force with over 100 commission officers. So we are really running twenty four, seven. And it's unique for sure, but we are really best described as a separate political subdivision and a regional form of government. So we have the boundaries, the confines within the Cuyoga County boundary, hinckley Township boundary for our taxing authority. But again, we serve a population base that extends past our boundaries.

Jeffrey Stern [00:27:15]:

And how much does volunteerism play into the contribution to managing the parks?

Brian Zimmerman [00:27:22]:

It's a huge number. I don't know where we'd be without one. Our internal volunteer staff that helps coordinate events, events like. KeyBank give back days where they're working on removing garlic mustard or invasive plants at Wendy Park, Whiskey Island to teams that have come through, whether it be Lubrizol or Jurgens or any of the companies, we have so many wonderful company support days that happen. We're also a wonderful recipient for our trail ambassadors, our zoo and zoo ambassadors, and then just thousands of more other volunteers that are at a nature center or at one of our park events doing something. It's truly remarkable. We've had a number of people in here for the past number of years archiving our data, and we have a wonderful, what I would call, history group. Judy McKegan runs our archives. Our volunteers are really remarkable. Thousands of hours each year with the.

Jeffrey Stern [00:28:18]:

Kind of breadth of activities that you're responsible for. What does your day to day actually entail and look like?

Brian Zimmerman [00:28:24]:

Well, it can start as early as 01:00 in the morning, 02:00 in the morning, whether something's going on. Most days I'm going by 530, checking the first round of emails that come through overnight. It can be just about anything. It can be going today. I've got meetings on our real estate updates, marketing updates. I do a lot of interviews throughout the day. I do one on ones, I would say monthly with the top staff. I do some board work. I do try to get into the parks as much as possible. Destination cleveland's annual meeting we're hosting here tomorrow night. We've got a tremendous amount of work that we do with our donors. Thursday, I'm doing a donor tour. One of our donors contributed almost $100,000 to redo parts of the gorge down in Brexville. So it could be donor relations to a board meeting, to internal discussions on capital funding, capital equipment opportunities, hiring, union negotiations. So any given day can be very different. And honestly, that's one of the parts that I love the most, is the amount of challenging. Some days it's trademark infringement. People using likenesses and images that the park has stamped under trademark rules and regulations. And those things you need to protect to animal movements, to animal exhibits, to property acquisitions. So honestly, I could keep going on. Each day is so different. We just hosted this past Friday the Twilight at the zoo with the Zoological Society, one of our largest philanthropic supporters for the zoo. We also just hosted the fest at Brookside Reservation. Probably close to 20,000 people came there for a day of opportunity and music land. So any given day is unique and somewhat unbalanced, but that's what I love the most.

Jeffrey Stern [00:30:12]:

So as much as the Metro parks are this refuge from technology, you mentioned data earlier on. I am wondering what your strategy is for the actual use of technology within the organization and how you think about innovation as a park system and where there is opportunity for innovation as an organization that is stemmed from nature.

Brian Zimmerman [00:30:36]:

I think it's always interesting. Trying to balance the side of technology and wildlife cameras, I think, is one thing that pops up fairly immediate, the amount of opportunity to see the engagement between wildlife and what I call the natural realm and human interactions. We have one of the largest surveys going on in the country right now that's gone. It's replicated year after year after year in the same spot just to see trends in nature. We've been partnering with Michigan State and our team here under the direction of Jen Griser that I think is really unique from a technology standpoint. We collect a lot of data relative to visitation. That's why we're successful with a lot of grants. We've got traffic counters. We actually have people going out and actually counting attendance. And all those numbers matter. Most recently, we added signs on the interstates where you have to have so much visitation annually in order to get those on, and we've hit those numbers every year land. So that is helpful. So our numbers help dictate that. What's interesting is we have a number of different point of sale systems, whether it be at our marinas, at our golf courses, at the zoo. So all of that interaction and data, it's interesting that when you talk about Disney and the collection of data, they can tell you basically where you're at in the park land, what you're thirsty for. We're not to that level, but certainly I think data is important, especially when you look at running a zoo. A zoo is a very costly endeavor. It costs almost $25 million a year. We generally generate close to $13 to $14 million worth of earned income. So there's certainly a subsidy there. But there's an opportunity. We just added a new zip line, so we're looking at the penetration land per cap for that, the amount of penetration that we see through the Asian Lantern Festival. So some of those opportunities have been extremely important for additional revenue to support the zoo. When a koala costs $25,000 a year to feed, you have three koalas at $75,000 at the fixed cost. And so we have elephants and giraffes and we have rhinoceros and a whole other amount of species that are going on throughout the zoo.

Jeffrey Stern [00:32:44]:


Jeffrey Stern [00:32:45]:

I think it's a good time to talk just about some of the specific projects. I'm curious how the and this is kind of a small one, but in the scope of the rest of the things we're talking about. But the water taxi struck me as kind of an interesting thing that is under the Metro Park umbrella here.

Brian Zimmerman [00:33:01]:

Yeah, you know what's interesting about that is that if you think so, if you're not from Cleveland, visualize Lake Erie connected to the Cuyahoga River. The Cuyahoga River runs north south. Well, technically it starts way north, goes way south, and then comes back north again. The challenge, though, is if you think about if you're on the east side looking to the west, there are very few contact points to actually get across here. The first real contact point is the Center Street Bridge. Now, if the Center Street Bridge goes out, you have to go back to the Columbus Road Bridge, come up and around. It's not necessarily as easy. So the concept was when we were working on connecting the trails that include the lake, the Cleveland Foundation, Centennial Lakeland Trail, there was no real contact point for the downtown residents to get to the west side of the flat. And so that was the concept there with the water taxi. Had been here many years ago. I was not here during the heyday, as they call it, of the flats, but there were water taxis that brought people back and forth. Certainly in Chicago, new York. Inner inner harbor. In Baltimore, there are water taxis. As we have opportunity, we continue to continue to try to make that connection as unique as possible. It's designed to have bikes on it and go back and forth to connect the east side and the west side of the Cuyahoga River. It's a unique opportunity. It's certainly unique. For sure.

Jeffrey Stern [00:34:25]:

It is a unique opportunity. The other thing I think I've always, and I think touched on it already is just the opportunity of being on the lake and just the opportunity that lies with expanding the connection along that. I know there's a whole history, politics, land, everything that comes with that, but do you feel like there is the chance for a much more connected waterfront going forward?

Brian Zimmerman [00:34:50]:

The answer is yes. Cleveland is uniquely positioned to do some different things. And whether it's the conversation that's centered around an airport, there's always, I think, an opportunity to have a different level of conversation with multiple other airports. And I don't exactly know what that means, but I'm a park guy. So to see more opportunity for green space, we've talked about Cheers, which is the Cleveland Harbor Eastern and Bayment Resilience study, which is basically covering the east 55th through the Gordon Park area. What and how does that look like? Can we create more space there? For those that don't know, Edgewater Park was fill, and that was how it was created. That is all submerged land there. And so there are some concepts that would be relative to the east side as well, really putting together more opportunity to connect. And that would be, I think, a pretty remarkable step forward, but really celebrating it more through a lakefront bike way land. Whether the airport then does stay and then can a trail be put on what I would call the northern boundary of it, and that may be sufficing some activity. From an accessibility standpoint, it would be considered non airport traffic movement north of a boundary line that allows for the flow of people to enjoy Lake Erie in a very different way. So I think there are still continued operations. The cleveland Browns and their plan of kind of reconnecting and pulling what I call the Bifurcated, where the Amtrak is freeway system, is to really see how to pull that back in a little bit. It's a little bit difficult on days to go down just east 9th street to make that really only connection there. So we look forward to seeing more opportunity to connect the malls to our lakefront.

Jeffrey Stern [00:36:30]:

Yeah, me as well.

Jeffrey Stern [00:36:32]:

My exposure to the metro parks are kind of limited to the experiences I have going to them. And so I feel like it's probably best to just ask you what are some of the projects that are going on within the metro parks that you are most excited about right now?

Brian Zimmerman [00:36:46]:

We finished up a number of projects, one that include Banachery out at Huntington Beach, one of the original reservations. We had redone a bathroom system in the previous year and then rehabed essentially the concession area with new seating. Tremendous amount of community support. We've also added a liquor license there so you can have a glass of wine or a beer in the evening. It's a really unique opportunity to catch a wonderful sunset. The Lindsay family play space at Edgewater was almost 100% funded with outside funding. Donors Teresa and Brett Lindsay came forward and said, hey, we need to do something different than the two swings that are sitting here. William Cinchcomb, our founder, designed one of the original ones so over 100 years ago, that didn't exist anymore. And so that concept has come forward, making all these trail connections happen. Whiskey island connector to the Wendy Park Bridge, which is this new iconic structure connecting across the Norfolk Southern rail track reconnecting community. Cleveland plant that has included the red line, greenway connections to the tow path. We're currently working on a renovation space for the Cleveland Metro Park Zoo. To really talk about education, we've most recently added a zip line. We're in the current process of fundraising for a new bear exhibit that will be on the heels of a new gorilla and orang exhibit, which is going to be close to a $60 million endeavor for the Metro parks. We've also forward an opportunity to look at the Chalet land, its long term use, whether we add an ice skating rink, we add a new Chalet Wallace Lake. We've talked about a new concession stand there. We actually need a few new maintenance facilities that are fairly tired. But we've also worked with our trails. We're putting a new pump track in our highway neary Canal Reservation, adding more miles of trail there. We're working on the gorge down in Brexville, adding a connection down to the Chippewa Creek. We're also working at Henry Church Rock in the South Sugarn Reservation. We're adding a beaver lodge over in North Chagrin. Honestly, I could keep going on. There's a tremendous amount more activity that's going on. Those are the ones that we've just most recently finished and projects that are currently in the hopper.

Jeffrey Stern [00:38:56]:

Yeah, of those projects, the one that I'm just very curious about is I realize there's over a few hundred miles of trails, and something that has always confounded in me is how those trails are maintained. Just like the scope of that project is very confusing to me. And I'd love if you could kind of break down how trail maintenance actually works at such a large scale.

Brian Zimmerman [00:39:19]:

Well, as each manager, each park reservation and so the Big Creek is a great example. We have a lot of neighbors houses, some of it's more in a protected situation, some of it's through the parkway. But we do maintain them throughout the year. And so whether it's leaf blowers to keep the tree litter, tree branches off, whether it's in the fall, the hickory nuts, walnuts, et cetera, those can be challenging on a bicycle. And then during the winter, we do plow them as well. So our wonderful teams that are part of our maintenance facilities at all of our locations under the direction of our park managers, they do a phenomenal job not only maintaining that, but making sure that the bathrooms are clean, the garbage is picked up, the picnic pavilions are ready to go, the grass is cut. The overall park experience lies solely within the park operations part of the Cleveland Metro parks. And they do a wonderful job, really second to none. And I love the fact that we're open year round. We also add cross country skiing at locations on our golf courses. Golf is having not only last year a record year, this year it's still pacing land trending very well. We've done additions at our Seneca Park golf course. We're looking at going into Sleepy Hollow and doing some major renovations there, really bringing that golf course back to Stanley Thompson. It's ranked in the top 15 in the country for best municipal golf courses. Maniki is not far behind at number 27. So two in the top 30 in this park system. It's really remarkable.

Jeffrey Stern [00:40:46]:

Wow. Yeah, that's incredible. Over the last ten years or so that you've been running the Metro parks, what have been the most surprising learnings to you? Things that you did not expect or assume coming in that you've learned along the way.

Brian Zimmerman [00:41:02]:

When I first got here, the park system, as much as it was known it was still relatively underexpressed is, I think, the word. And our marketing teams have come up with some really wonderful campaigns. Whether it was come out and play, whether it was find your path, we celebrated our 100 year anniversary in 2017, but that opportunity to keep telling your story, I think is really remarkable. COVID has done some really different things for us as far as large gatherings. We've been trying to be as socially responsible as we can throughout things, and I think we're going to retool and relook at as we're going forward. How to bring some of the events that we used to do back our education teams pivoted as fast as anybody to more of the virtual side. I cannot say enough good things about the reach that they had when people were struggling and looking for not only content, but just a connection to their park if they couldn't get out, our naturalists, our educators all did that, whether they be at the Cleveland Metropolitan Zoo or one of our nature centers. But I think that's pretty unique. But I think the thing that I wouldn't say it surprised me, but I think over time how leadership across the different facets, whether it be the Port Authority, the sewer district, the Housing Authority, the foundations, how often we talk. And to me, that is a really strong story. When you look at some of the communities, maybe as big as Chicago or New York, I don't know that they talk as much as we do. And whether you look at the land conservancies under Rich Cochrane, derek Schaefer at West Creek, we're talking about how do we continue to do things and how do we partner? Partnerships are hard. Everybody thinks, oh, we'll just partner it. But everybody brings something to the table. And I think when you bring something to the table, you have to understand that others are bringing things to the table too. Land how do you step forward, how do you walk through? How do you make things happen? And to me, that's been really, truly remarkable, the amount of philanthropy in this community. It didn't necessarily surprise me, but it's humbling to see how people express their gratitude for green space. We continue to grow our endowment here, where we've got one of the largest funds at the Cleveland Foundation that allows for us to do things like the Centennial Plaza at Water Beach. They've helped us do projects like the Euclid Beach Pier. Opportunities to continue to put projects on the ground through an endowment is nothing sort of remarkable. So people that have given to the park district, we're thankful for. So not only have we talked about our volunteerism, but we've talked about our general endowment and our general help through philanthropic donations.

Jeffrey Stern [00:43:31]:

Yeah, it's encouraging to hear, really, I think, with how many things I feel like are divisive these days, the connection that the metro parks bring. Land bringing these disparate organizations together, I feel like it goes back to Stincomb's quote of our need to be connected to nature and really kind of it is this unifying force. And so that's good to hear. That is, in practice, how it works as well.

Brian Zimmerman [00:43:57]:

Parks can be the great equalizer, right? I mean, they don't know race, creed, color, religion, socioeconomic background. They don't know any of these things, and they're there for you when you need them the most. But to know that we have this capacity as a regional form of government to go through and with different communities that can't sometimes work together. We have the ability to thread things through communities in a very different way, and so we continue to help as much as we possibly can. We're working with the city of Solen and the village of Bentleyville on a trail concept we're working on how do we continue to extend from Edgewater Park. And some are a little bit more challenging than others, but the opportunity there to make this connection is going to be really a unique opportunity. We're working with ODOT, the city of Cleveland, on the Slavic Village Trail connector that can run down through Broadway into downtown off of Booth Avenue, an opportunity to connect the Morgan or run to the top. So there's still more to come, more opportunities to connect trails, land. That, to me, is a really big step forward. We're looking forward to some more opportunities on the east side of this great city.

Jeffrey Stern [00:45:02]:

Yeah. And to me, it's pretty remarkable, the speed of execution, really, because even just over the last five years that I've been here in Cleveland, it's pretty remarkable to see how much of this has actually come to pass. It was just a few weeks ago for the first time, I went down on the Tow path all the way down to Akron from the top of Tremont and the Whiskey Island Bridge. Just like seeing these things come together, it's pretty extraordinary.

Brian Zimmerman [00:45:30]:

I think that's the form of governance here is the opportunity to keep things moving forward. We have three park commissioners that serve at the sole purpose and sole function of allowing this park district to continue to move forward. They challenge us every day to do things for the community. And we've got a great project coming in our Garfield Park Reservation, where we're going to bring back a two and a half acre pond. We're going to build a brand new boathouse connecting people to water, whether it's through learn to kayak opportunities, whether it's learn to fish opportunities, those areas are extremely important. And so they continue to challenge us to do things that allow us to continue to grow and connect people to this park district.

Jeffrey Stern [00:46:15]:

Yeah, it is awesome. Again, I can't express enough how much gratitude I have for the metro parks and the work you guys are doing. So like I mentioned when we kind of started the conversation in the pattern recognition that the metro parks are something kind of uniformly that everyone appreciates here about Cleveland, but one of the things that we do do is have people relay not necessarily their favorite things in Cleveland. Often it is the metro parks, but of other things that people may not necessarily know about. So the hidden gems land. So with that, what are some of those for you?

Brian Zimmerman [00:46:52]:

Well, one the tallest point in Cuyahoga County is on one of our properties, and that's the Seneca Park Golf Course. That was a work in progress with the city of cleveland. We've renovated 30 well, we've renovated 27 holes. We're in the process of renovating 36 holes in the near future. The tallest waterfall, which I'm sure people have talked about before in Mill Creek, it's the picture that actually hangs in my office. It's uniquely urban, and it's this wonderful, gorgeous waterfall that sits there. I think the essence of Wade Hall, sitting here at the Clive Land Metro Park Zoo, knowing that the zoo started in the Wade Oval through the Jeff, the Wade, and to really think that that's still standing here 135 plus years later, that's a unique gem as well. But then I think the effect that we have land that we continue to farm on, growing up on a farm, to know that we're raising some crops yet, that's kind of a unique thing. Hickley Lake is a great not that it's a hidden gem. Most people know about it. But we'll be rebuilding the dam here shortly and dredging the lake. So it will be a unique process that we close. But whips ledges to warden's ledges, those to be able to walk through and hike is truly remarkable. So there's lots of hidden gems. One that most don't know about is a quarried area in the Bradley Woods Reservation. It's north of the road. I would always challenge people to bring boots. It can be wet out there, but there are a lot of quarried stones that are still sitting there in many different ways, shapes, forms, and fashion. So that's kind of a hidden trail that most people don't use.

Jeffrey Stern [00:48:29]:

Yeah, it is. One of my favorite things, actually, about the metro parks is I feel the more exposure and depth I get into it, the more I realize how much there actually is to explore about it.

Brian Zimmerman [00:48:40]:

Land who can forget? Got to have some money, whether it's at any of our park locations. But that's one of the staples of the park as well. Great partnership with a local business here.

Jeffrey Stern [00:48:51]:

Cannot go wrong with some ice cream. Well, Brian, I really appreciate you coming on and sharing the story of the metro parks. And again, just for doing the work of stewarding the metro parks, it really is a wonderful thing that we have here in Cleveland. So thank you.

Brian Zimmerman [00:49:06]:

You're welcome. Land it's truly a pleasure when I get a chance to tell the story of the park district. I think when people are reflective think of it 104 years. 104 years the Park District has been there. It's gone through now two global pandemics back in 1918, 1919, now gone through one in our lifetime. But to know that we're here for you when you need us, whether it's a walk, whether it's a hike, whether it's a wave, whether it's a weight loss program, whether it's an opportunity to soak in the sun or dance in the rain, we're here for you. We're here for you. And please continue to come out and use us and support us. So we appreciate the time. Wonderful to be here.

Jeffrey Stern [00:49:46]:

Thanks Brian. If folks have anything that they'd like to follow up with you about or the Metro parks about, where is the best place for them to go besides actually physically going to the Metroparks live.

Brian Zimmerman [00:49:56]:

On, we've revamped our website Land. It's very user friendly with a couple of clicks. My email is on there. You can always reach me through the front office as well.

Jeffrey Stern [00:50:06]:

Awesome. Well, thank you again, Brian.

Brian Zimmerman [00:50:08]:

All right, have a good day.

Jeffrey Stern [00:50:10]:

That's all for this week. Thank you for listening. We'd love to hear your thoughts on today's show, so if you have any feedback, please send over an email to Jeffrey at layoftheland FM or find us on Twitter at pod layoftheland or at sternjefe