Oakland County Parks celebrates half a century of outdoor fun

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published April 11, 2016


OAKLAND COUNTY — In 1966, Oakland County Parks and Recreation launched a parks system in a somewhat rural county with a menial budget supported in part by a new 0.2415-mill tax.

The system had one employee, and he was borrowed from the Detroit Office of Civil Defense because the county couldn’t afford him full time.

“It was a little challenging to convince taxpayers that we needed parks in Oakland County, especially since so many of us were living on farms. People were outdoors more; kids were playing outside. So I’ve got to believe it was a little bit difficult to get people convinced that they should pay for open land and places to fish when they had all that in their own communities,” said state Rep. Kathy Crawford, R-Novi. “Thank goodness Oakland County was as forward-thinking back then as they are now.”

A small party for a big occasion
The Parks and Recreation Department celebrated its 50th anniversary with a reception at Glen Oaks Country Club in Farmington Hills April 5. Crawford was one of several legislators who attended to present special proclamations honoring the department’s huge milestone.

Oakland County Parks and Recreation Executive Director Dan Stencil and Chairman of the Parks and Recreation Commission Gerald Fisher hosted the celebration, detailing between speakers how the parks system has grown from four local parks to 6,700 acres of preserved natural land in 13 parks with year-round recreational activities and programming.

“We’re here, the current commission, all standing on the shoulders of past commissioners and all of you here who built one of the best parks systems in America,” Fisher said to the crowd. “I’m happy to be a part of that — being good stewards for the environment and doing our part to support economic prosperity (in Oakland County).”

The massive parks and rec department, branded as Destination Oakland, boasts two nature centers, five golf courses, two water parks, three dog parks and two campgrounds, among other amenities. The 0.25-mile BMX track at Waterford Oaks is the oldest such track in the world, and the Oakland County Market — taken over by parks and rec in 2012 — dates back to 1922.

Ron Olson attended the celebration representing Gov. Rick Snyder’s office; J. David VanderVeen represented Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson’s office; state Sen. Vince Gregory, D-Lathrup Village, and state Sen. Marty Knollenberg, R-Troy, among several other legislators, were in attendance.

One big anniversary gift
Stencil let the crowd in on a bit of a secret that morning: The department is working on hopefully adding a 14th park, located in Holly, to the system in the near future.

“That land is going to be purchased by (the Michigan Department of Natural Resources) through a Michigan land trust fund,” explained Sue Wells, manager of parks and recreation operations. “The concept is we would partner with the DNR. It’s somewhat of the model in Madison Heights with the nature center at Red Oaks. We’re leasing that from the city, but we’re operating and maintaining it. It would be a little different, but the same idea.”

Aside from that major project, though, there’s nothing new slated to go up during the 2016 budget year. The focus, Wells said, will be on updating and maintaining the facilities already in place and ramping up programming selections at all the parks.

“Anytime you build something new and put a shovel in the ground, it costs money. I think we’re reinvesting — not spending — in maintaining what we have. Over the years we’ve built a lot of new things, so we’re trying to maintain those,” she said.

Staying alive by staying on budget
The parks and rec annual report, released earlier this year, showed that revenue for the system increased slightly during fiscal year 2015 from the year prior, and the department was able to stay on track with that, devoting the biggest chunk of the budget — just over 35 percent — to salaries.

A little over 49 percent of that budget was paid for in taxes through the same millage that was approved by county voters 50 years ago. It has been renewed several times over, most recently in August of 2010 with 76.5 percent approval — the highest ever in parks history, according to a report from mParks.

Instead of building, Wells said the attention has been largely placed on customer service. She said 2015 was the first year the department took over concessions after years of contracting those services at the Waterford Oaks and Groveland Oaks parks. Now employees can move from concessions to other positions and back seamlessly, since they’re trained for most jobs in the park.

“It’s good. The whole facility has the culture of Oakland County parks now,” she said.

That level of service is, she believes, what keeps customers coming back, among other things. But the key is to draw visitors to the parks in the first place, and that’s why there’s such a concentration on programming now.

“Programs are one major way to get people to the parks. It’s how families who may never have gone get there. If there’s a program, they might attend and say, ‘Oh, I really like this place.’ It drives people to the park, and hopefully they’ll come back at another time,” Wells said.

More waves to come
With no shortage of activities scattered throughout the county, there should be a little something to bring every visitor back for more. But it’s the water park at Red Oaks that 79-year-old Thomas Jackson really likes.

The Waterford resident was impressed last week during the anniversary celebration to see how far the department has come since its inception so long ago. After all, he was that single employee borrowed from Civil Defense who oversaw the beginning of what would later become a massive system.

“We put a bid out for a major swimming complex, but it was too pricey. So that’s how we came up with the wave pool,” said Jackson. “It was the third wave pool in the North American continent. I had heard of them in Europe, but we couldn’t get them here because of legal restrictions. But we got close. The growth of all this since day one has been fantastic.”

To learn more about Oakland County Parks and Recreation, visit www.DestinationOakland.com.

Oakland County Parks and Recreation is looking for a few good students. If you’re a high school or college student in need of summer work, apply for a job with the parks department at www.oakgov.com.