Metroparks celebrate 75 years outdoors

By: Julie Snyder | C&G Newspapers | Published June 22, 2017


METRO DETROIT — The Huron-Clinton Metroparks are 75 years and growing.

From giant inflatable slides and treetop fun to state-of-the-art playground improvements and wildlife and nature conservation efforts, the parks system is continually growing and evolving.

Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority Director George Phifer said that ever since the park system opened to the public in 1942, visiting is like taking a mini vacation right at home.

“We service so many interest groups with the nature centers, water facilities, farm areas, beaches, picnic areas and sports,” Phifer said. “It’s critical to the region, and it’s critical to quality of life. You can step away from your normal day-to-day grind and go ‘up north’ even though you’re right at home still.”

He said that each of the 13 parks that comprise the multicounty authority offers nature close to home.

“The metroparks, being around as long as they have, I would call it part of the greenbelt: a connection not only between the Huron and the Clinton rivers, but everyone has a connection with one of the parks. We have so much to offer. It’s a gem that we have in southeast Michigan.”

The concept of a regional park system in southeast Michigan can be traced back to the ideas and work of Dr. Henry S. Curtis and professor Harlow O. Whittemore. Their plan included a limited-access parkway that would connect a series of four or five large parks, each consisting of at least 1,000 acres of land. They envisioned the parks system existing throughout five counties and running along the Huron and Clinton rivers.

Curtis and Whittemore’s vision came to life with Public Act 147 of 1939, which provided incorporation of the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority. In 1940, residents of Livingston, Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne counties voted to move the measure forward, and officials recount that the true birth of the HCMA occurred in 1942, when the first funds became available from a millage assessment.

The primary purpose of the HCMA was — and remains to be — to plan, acquire, develop and operate regional recreational facilities.

One of the largest regional park systems in the nation, the HCMA covers more than 25,000 acres of land throughout southeast Michigan, encompassing Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Washtenaw and Livingston counties.

Whether it’s visiting with the farm animals at Wolcott Mill Metropark in Ray Township or Kensington Metropark in Milford; cooling off in the water parks at Lake St. Clair Metropark in Harrison Township or Willow Metropark in New Boston; or getting in some canoeing, kayaking and even ice fishing at Dehli Metropark in Ann Arbor and Dexter-Huron Metropark in Dexter, the parks system doesn’t lack for something to do during every Michigan season.

And improvements are continually being made.

A 700-foot-boardwalk along the Pointe Rose Marsh at Lake St. Clair Metropark was completed in the summer of 2013, and this summer the $2.2 million redesign of the playground area will be completed and will offer a fitness area for adults.

At Stony Creek Metropark, the GoApe Zip Line and Treetop Adventure Course was completed in April, at the same time that the new 50-foot inflatable slide was installed. Upcoming improvements include a fall groundbreaking of a waterfront restaurant with indoor and outdoor dining areas, as well as a viewing platform overlooking the lake, and a parking lot expansion.

At Wolcott Mill, a group of youths involved in the Macomb County 4-H Club recently renovated a greenhouse that was being used for storage and turned it into an operating greenhouse and garden. The group members call themselves Beyond the Seed, and they are growing flowers and vegetables and have expanded into hydroponics.

“It took us eight months to get that greenhouse in working order,” said 4-H leader and HCMA volunteer Faye Cerku. “They are learning a lot about what (the plants) need to flourish.”

Phifer said the approximately 4,500 volunteers who help the HCMA every year are what keep programs going strong and keep the parks clean and environmentally sound.

Volunteer Supervisor Katie Kowalski said volunteers can get involved by repairing golf courses, cleaning picnic and parks areas of debris, and protecting native plant populations by removing invasive trees, shrubs and plants, or collecting seeds to be sown at restoration sites within the parks.

“It’s an exciting time at our (organization), and I invite everyone to come out and celebrate our 75th anniversary,” said Phifer, who has been involved with the HCMA for nine years and was named director two years ago. He works with the HCMA board, which comprises seven members, five of whom are appointed by each county and serve six years, and two of whom are appointed by the governor and serve four years.

Commemorating its 75th anniversary, the HCMA has created a series of photo albums on its website,, filled with hundreds of historical photographs taken from each of the parks, many capturing their evolution through the decades and others simply showing images of families enjoying outdoor activities. There are musical history displays at all of the parks that will help visitors hear the story of the HCMA.

And plenty of fanfare is in store to commemorate the anniversary.

Phifer said upcoming events include performances by the Michigan Philharmonic at four HCMA parks, and Fourth of July fireworks displays and food vendors at seven parks.

“Both are quite a show and attract thousands,” Phifer said. “What we’re really looking forward to is the Greenwood Farms Clydesdale Team Parade. It’s really a unique experience to see a Clydesdale up close.”

During the Michigan Philharmonic at the Metroparks concerts, there will be hospitality vendors, and visitors will learn about the metroparks’ past, present and future through a life-size history exhibit. Vendors will be open at 5 p.m. each day, with the Clydesdale parade at 6 p.m. and the concert beginning at 7 p.m.

Metroparks hosting the Michigan Philharmonic this year are Kensington Metropark July 15, Lake St. Clair Metropark July 22, Stony Creek Metropark July 29, and Lake Erie Metropark Aug. 5. A metroparks vehicle permit costs $35 annually for regular admission, $21 annually for seniors and $10 for a day pass. The cost is $15 after 5 p.m. during special events.