Building the County Parks
Author: Grace Shackman
How a political gambit led the way
It is hard to imagine now just how rare parks were in Washtenaw County in 1972. Ann Arbor and other big towns had their own parks, and there were the Metroparks on the river and the state recreation areas at the northwest edge of the county. But the county’s only parks were a few rest areas run by the Washtenaw County Road Commission. Former road commission employee Carl Thayer remembers there wasn’t much to them—just “hand-mowed areas right beside the road with a picnic table and a green trash barrel.”
Things began to change in 1972, when Meri Lou Murray ran for county commissioner—by default. As Third Ward chair for the Ann Arbor Democratic Party, Murray was responsible for finding a candidate for her county board district. But since that district was then considered a Republican stronghold, no Democrat wanted to run. The party told Murray she would have to fill the slot herself.
Figuring they had nothing to lose, she and her campaign committee decided to think big—and came up with the idea of advocating for a county park system.
Murray won in an upset victory that fall and went on to shepherd into existence a county parks department that now has twenty-seven facilities on about 3,400 acres. The county system has thirty-three full-time employees, more than 300 seasonal jobs, and an annual budget that ranges from $6 million to $8 million depending on whether the system is buying land that year. And it’s long since expanded from rural parks to include active-recreation facilities and protected natural areas.
The Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission held its first meeting in August 1973. Initially, all it oversaw was four roadside parks inherited from the road commission. But things began to pick up the following August, when WCPARC hired its first director, Bob Gamble.
Parks commissioner Nelson Meade recalls that the search had come down to two finalists, but one took a job in a bigger community, and the other hesitated to come to a county with no park millage to fund its system. Then, toward the end of the process, Gamble applied.
After reading his resume, which included being director of parks in Nassau County, Long Island, Meade wrote Gamble to say, “You’re out of our league. We can’t afford you.” But Gamble explained that his needs were modest and that he had lost the Nassau County job when the people who hired him were voted out of office. Although employed elsewhere, he was anxious to get back into park work. Meade recalls that at an interview in the county planning department’s conference room, “Bob lolled in his chair, but he charmed us. We hired him instantly.”
The commission still had virtually no budget, but one of the roadside parks, Park Lyndon, was surrounded by 205 undeveloped acres that the state had given to the county in 1960. Gamble got a federal grant to build a parking lot, a picnic pavilion, toilets, and a small cabin, and he recruited federally funded job training employees to lay out trails. Park Lyndon is now one of the jewels of the park system—“one of the premier nature preserves east of the Mississippi,” according to current county parks head Bob Tetens.
Murray recalls that the commissioners themselves helped set up fitness trails, using equipment made by the job trainees in a hangar at the city airport. At the County Service Center at Washtenaw and Hogback, formerly a Roman Catholic seminary, they commandeered the old gym for exercise classes, ignoring the noise from the sheriff’s shooting range in the basement.
Parks commissioner Bob Marans, a U-M professor of architecture and urban planning, arranged for students to survey county residents on their priorities for the new park system. Preserving open space came out on top, followed by a swimming beach and a park in the eastern part of the county. Gamble recommended creating parks at Independence Lake in Webster Township and on a property south of Ypsilanti with a small pond—today’s Rolling Hills County Park.
In August 1976 the county asked voters for a quarter-mill, ten-year park tax. Gamble stayed up all night after the election waiting for the votes to come in. When the final tally was announced, the proposal was 349 votes short of approval. “Bob was devastated,” recalls Nelson Meade. But the very next night the parks commissioners asked the board of commissioners to put the millage back on the fall ballot. They were worried that if they waited two years until the next countywide election, the land would be lost to private developers.
The night of the fall 1976 election, Gamble was so confident he went to bed at his normal time. He awoke the next morning to find that the millage had passed by 5,000 votes. Environmentally minded voters may have turned out in especially large numbers that year because the state’s returnable-bottle law proposal was on the ballot—but the county parks never again lost a millage campaign.
With a steady source of revenue, WCPARC won federal matching grants to buy and develop Independence Lake and Rolling Hills. Murray herself securied another key parcel when, after years of lobbying, she convinced her fellow county commissioners to donate the former county poor farm on Washtenaw to the park system. It’s now County Farm Park.
Bob Gamble retired in 1980. His successor, Roger Shedlock, oversaw the opening of Rolling Hills in 1983, and the historic Parker Mill on Geddes the following year.
The original ten-year millage was due to run out in 1986, but the parks commissioners decided to put the renewal on the ballot in 1984. They were pleasantly surprised when it easily passed on the first try.
In 1985, Shedlock was succeeded by Fred Barkley, a former county and regional planner. In July 1988, Barkley went to a convention in Portland, Oregon, to receive an award for Parker Mill’s trail system. “One day, while walking by the Portland City Hall,” Barkley recalls, “I saw kids playing in water shooting up in a spray.” He decided to add “interactive sprays” at both Independence Lake and Rolling Hills. At Rolling Hills, Barkley also replaced the original swimming pond with an elaborate water park complete with a water slide and a wave pool. According to Barkley, it was Michigan’s first public water park.
By then, most of the original millage was being spent to maintain the existing parks. The commissioners realized that if they wanted to continue to buy land, they would need another millage, and in 1988 voters approved a second quarter mill. Renewals of both the original and new millages easily passed in 1994 and 1998. The county uses one for operations and the other for park acquisitions and major improvements.
An indoor recreation center opened at County Farm Park in 1990. Built in the shape of a barn to honor the site’s history, it includes a swimming pool, a gym, exercise equipment, a walking area, and space for fitness classes. When Meri Lou Murray retired from the county commission in 1996, it was renamed in her honor. The Meri Lou Murray Recreation Center is now the most-used facility in the entire county park system.
Barkley’s last big projects were the golf course on Pierce Lake near Chelsea, more improvements at Rolling Hills and Independence Lake, and the purchase of Sharon Mills County Park near Manchester. Most of these were finished by his successor, Bob Tetens, who took over in 2001. Like Barkley, Tetens is a former planner who exudes enthusiasm for the parks. He seems to carry a mental map of the county in his head: whenever a potential park site is mentioned, he knows its physical properties and whether it is for sale or might be in the future.
Built in the 1830s on the Raisin River, Sharon Mills had been a Ford parts plant, a home, an antique store, and a winery before WCPARC bought it. The county restored the mill building and added handicapped-accessible restrooms, a pergola, terraces, and a pavilion. Plans call for adding walking and mountain bike trails on 119 recently purchased acres across the road.
In 2001 voters approved a new quarter-mill tax to preserve natural areas. At the time the county had just one nature preserve; now there are fourteen, all of them accessible to the public. “People can’t appreciate or understand nature unless they can experience it,” says Tetens.
The other big project since Tetens arrived has been the effort to complete a
border-to-border nonmotorized trail throughout the county. Also called “linear parks,” such trails open large stretches of land to the public. But they also require close collaboration with units of governments, individual landowners, and other park systems. “Some [obstacles] are difficult, some are expensive, but none are insurmountable,” says Tetens. He predicts that when it’s finished, the B2B trail will garner national recognition.
This year the county parks are thirty-five years old. With its second millage up for renewal, WCPARC has again developed a master plan describing what it will do with the money. For instance, since research shows a need for more sports facilities, the commissioners are working on an expansion plan for Rolling Hills that would include more space for disc golf and soccer and a “miracle field” with a rubberized surface that is safer for handicapped children and seniors. Similar improvements are being planned for the other parks. Also on the drawing boards is another indoor recreation center.
Tetens is very excited about the system’s future. “More than any other land use, parks have the ability to transcend time,” he says. “I am confident that the parks and preserves developed today will still be serving the Washtenaw County citizens a hundred years in the future. Parks are forever."