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Oakland County parks thrive, but still looking to improve

Annual report shows parks doing well, while officials plan for future fun

February 5, 2014

OAKLAND COUNTY — It might seem a bit chilly to think about a trip to the park, but the folks over at Oakland County Parks and Recreation have got outdoor fun at the forefront of their minds all year ’round.

Recently, the Oakland County Parks and Recreation Commission released its annual report detailing information on its 13 county parks, 65 miles of park trails, and seemingly endless list of recreation programs, facilities and partnerships.

According to Dan Stencil, executive officer of Oakland County Parks and Recreation Commission, the yearly report is something of a report card for residents on how their county recreation resources are performing — and as Stencil will tell you, Oakland County’s got pretty high marks in 2013.

“It’s for residents of the county, as well as elected officials and partners, to demonstrate our commitment to improving the quality of life for residents of the county by investing in programs, facilities and services that are linked to our 10-year strategic plan and five-year recreation plan,” said Stencil.

The 16-page report, available on the Oakland County Parks and Recreation website, details all of the organization’s initiatives over the past year, which can all be grouped into five categories: sustainability, rural recreation, urban recreation, healthy living and natural resources. Inside the report, people can read about how the commission developed those initiatives based on resident feedback.

“Hiking and walking is the No. 1 activity that consistently comes up in the participation surveys. People just want to get outdoors, and even in the wintertime, some of those trails are groomed for cross-country skiing; others are available for snow-shoeing,” said Stencil.

The parks, according to the report, drew just fewer than 2 million visitors last year, and those admission fees contributed to an overall $20,295,265 in total revenue for 2013. The actual expense total, however, exceeded that amount at $21,204,766. The budget, Stencil said, is about $26 million.

A part of those expenses, in addition to operations and maintenance, are annual salaries. Stencil said the commission takes great pride in the fact that Oakland County Parks and Recreation employs so many residents, even with seasonal jobs, such as lifeguard and park attendant.

“We’re really being more efficient and effective with that budget with long-range planning for maintenance costs like roofs and roads and windows and doors and things like that across the whole park system,” he said. “We’re projecting that out so that we can allot monies per year, probably a million plus, just on those long major maintenance costs that you do every 15, 20, 30 years. We don’t want to let it all go and have to inject significant amounts of money to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars and do a little each year to reduce the potential liabilities for the park system for those major maintenance items.”

According to Oakland County Parks and Recreation Operations Manager Sue Wells, last year’s attendance was up overall, but it was down at many of the county facilities such as the golf courses and water parks. That can be attributed, she said, to the milder temperatures the region experienced over the summer.

Ramping up attendance at those facilities, she said, will be a goal in 2014. The parks and rec team has some ideas in place: adding more programs, like golf and ski instruction, and doing more to market the resources available to residents that they might not know about. But there’s only so much mere humans can do for a business run by Mother Nature.

“Weather hampered attendance at facilities (last year), so we’d like to get more people at our facilities, and that comes through marketing our facilities better. But the ultimate marketer is that big thing in the sky called the sun. You can market all you want, but unless it’s hot out, people may not want to go to the water parks. Right now, it’s almost too cold to go to the parks at all,” said Wells.

Stencil said that an idea being tossed around the commission right now is to build a sort of winter recreation wonderland at Waterford Oaks park, where the toboggan run — lovingly dubbed “the fridge” — used to reside. He said there are hopes of creating a snow tubing area, cross-country ski and snow shoe courses, snowboarding and skiing opportunities and instruction, an ice rink, and more. The parks and rec team even has the ability to manufacture snow when the weather doesn’t cooperate for frosty fun.

The endeavor, he said, is far into the future, and it would be budgeted for or even paid for through a partnership with a private company.

For the foreseeable future, Wells said, her focus will be to improve and expand the organization’s urban recreation initiatives, such as the mobile recreation programs the parks and rec team brings to areas like Pontiac, Hazel Park and Royal Oak Township, where recreation activities aren’t always provided by local government.

Of those programs, one of Wells’ favorites is the annual marshmallow drop at Catalpa Oaks park, where loads of marshmallows are dropped onto the park out of a helicopter each spring. The event brings in around 5,000 people, she said.

There’s also potential to bring more rural park experiences to the lower, more densely populated areas of the county. Catalpa Oaks, located in Southfield, is a popular destination for metro Detroiters because it has lots of extra programs and activities happening throughout the year.

“We put in our first urban park at Catalpa,” said Wells. “It’s our role to develop more of those. I think that’s something to look at, since all our big parks are in northern Oakland County.”

To see the full report, visit


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