'5 Questions With' Brian Zimmerman, CEO of Cleveland Metroparks
1. Congratulations on Cleveland Metroparks recently being named a 2021 National Gold Medal “Best in Nation” winner by the National Recreation and Park Association. As you reflect on the award, what about it brings you the most satisfaction?
Reflecting on what’s been accomplished since we last brought home the gold in 2016, we completed some of the most monumental projects in Cleveland Metroparks' 104-year history. In 2016, we were just embarking on the Re-Connecting Cleveland initiative comprised of five projects and supported by the largest federal grant in our organization’s history – the $8 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant. This year, we marked the completion of all five projects, including the Wendy Park Bridge that links more than 66,000 Cleveland residents to centers of employment, schools, parks, and commerce, while also providing an unprecedented connection to our lakefront.
2. Your strategic plan’s latest updates drive home connectivity among your own and other parks, and we know you’ve made terrific progress connecting trails in the Flats and elsewhere. What are the greatest challenges in reaching those objectives among the various stakeholders around the region?
It’s like threading a needle sometimes, but our strong community partnerships have been vital to our success. Each project brings with it its own unique challenges and every community is unique. Communication with the community – listening and understanding what’s important helps bridge any gaps and helps develop a vision and direction that Cleveland Metroparks and our stakeholders can move forward on.
3. Your bold CHEERS plan for Cleveland’s eastern lakefront has gained enormous praise and confidence. Are there any Metroparks projects underway that excite you but perhaps aren’t as widely discussed among the public at this point?
It’s wonderful to see the excitement around what connections to the lakefront can look like in the future. Many hands make light work, but there will be some heavy lifting along the way and projects of this magnitude rely on strong collaboration and partnerships. Looking inland, our Planning and Design team is working on revitalizing Garfield Park Reservation, bringing about more opportunities for placemaking and recreation. There’s also a lot of planning going on behind the scenes at the zoo and with the Cleveland Zoological Society imagining what the future of some of our animal habitats could be.
4. Has the pandemic helped you learn anything about whether park systems take on new or different roles as external circumstances change?
As we’ve navigated a global pandemic, I have to praise the hard work and dedication of our staff. We strived to stay open to the public, transitioning our zoo to a drive-through experience and leveraging the power of our organization’s social media platforms to stay connected to our community. Our team of educators established a Virtual Classroom to keep our guests engaged and connected with nature. Our Planning and Design team showed great tenacity keeping capital projects moving forward during this time. What we saw during the height of the pandemic was that people were happy to have more time to get outdoors and connect with Cleveland Metroparks. In 2020, we set a visitation record with more than 19.7 million recreational visits.
5. You’ve fostered great respect for your regional leadership role and have helped Cleveland Metroparks take on responsibility for redeveloping lands that were formerly Cleveland (and state) lakefront parks. If you had a wish list for Cleveland’s next mayor, what would now be at the top of that list?
Cleveland Metroparks is truly a regional asset. At more than 24,000 acres, the Park District spans six counties and directly connects to 49 diverse communities. As we think strategically about the second century of stewardship of Cleveland Metroparks, we are keenly focused on how local investments will best welcome, connect and engage the community. I look forward to helping foster collaboration across the public and private sector to strengthen Cleveland and investment in the city.