Nature preserves and green space, wildlife havens and hiking trails wind through Lorain County like a rich, green ribbon, giving residents convenient, close-by places to enjoy the outdoors. Lorain County Metro Parks is the visionary and steward behind the goal to make parks present in every community, to draw people into the land so they can experience and celebrate it. 
Driving the park’s mission of connectivity is director James Ziemnik, who has spent the last 28 years in the parks and recreation business as a registered landscape architect focused on park planning and design. He spent a decade heavily involved in the new construction of buildings and trail construction in the park system before taking over as director three years ago.  
“Our vision and theme of the next 10 years is connectivity, which is really a continuation of what the park district has been doing very strongly for the last 20 years,” Ziemnik says. Now that the Metro Parks is the new custodian of 135-acre Cascade Park in Elyria, it can finish a trail extension system that will connect the Northcoast Inland Trail to the Black River Trail. 
“A large part of Cascade Park is along the Black River and through the Black River Reservation and Carlisle Reservation, where we are looking to develop opportunities along the river ways with trails and paddling,” Ziemnik says. “Cascade is that final piece of the puzzle, the last phase of the trail system that is instrumental in giving us multiple miles of trail.”
Cascade Park is the jewel of Elyria’s park system, and its revitalization holds opportunity for great economic impact. The Metro Parks had been in discussions with Mayor Holly Brinda’s office for years prior to the agreement that was settled in late 2013, making January 1, 2015, the beginning of a restoration effort that will make the park “clean and green.” 
“We are here to restore the park, and that’s a win-win for everyone involved,” Ziemnik says. “It’s a win for the city of Elyria, a win for the residents and for the people of Lorain County.”
The city of Elyria had been working on a master plan to implement capital investments and economic development activity at Cascade Park for many years. The Metro Parks will be “part of the solution” at Cascade Park, Ziemnik says, relating that the city administration has been “very forward-thinking and collaborative partners.” 
The vision for connectivity is now reality, with a series of grants making the Black River Trail Extension possible. It will tie in with the Metro Parks Northcoast Inland Trail, connecting the “dots” and expanses of parkland throughout the county. 
Heading into the Metro Parks’ 60th anniversary in 2017, park development and other programming initiatives will take connection beyond physical parkland and bring people into the parks, which coincides with the park’s long-term mission, Ziemnik says. “Our original master plan developed in 1960 talks about park development, trails, preservation and conservation of open space and green space,” he says. “As we move into the next 10 years, we look forward to creating more opportunities for Lorain County to enjoy those resources.”

Shining Natural Gems
The driving force of the Lorain County Metro Parks is its mission to preserve and conserve green space and to program those spaces for the public to embrace nature. Simply put, “We do parks,” Ziemnik says. “We know parks.”
“We are a park district, and we do them well,” Ziemnik says of eventually working out an agreement with the city of Elyria to become the custodians of Cascade Park. “Basically, this led us to suggesting, ‘If you would grant us the opportunity to make this park people-friendly and safe, we can do that.’” Ziemnik adds that the Metro Parks’ efforts to clean up the park do not interfere with the city’s economic development plans or programs such as camps. 
Park revitalization began in January, and community meetings will allow the public to offer ideas on how they’d like to see the space evolve under the Metro Parks stamp. The park still belongs to the city, and it will remain a city park, Ziemnik emphasizes. “We are operating it and will maintain it under a 50-year lease.”
In 2015, Cascade Park will provide Metro Parks programs and events developed by the park naturalists. It will continue to offer the summer camps the city runs — and Mayor Brinda related in an announcement about the park’s new management that residents might be able to watch fireworks at Cascade Park again one day. 
A healthy park system forwards economic development efforts, and Cascade Park’s two waterfalls flowing into the Black River, two restroom facilities and four picnic shelters are a tremendous asset to the community. “It’s one of the county’s true, regional historical gems,” Ziemnik says, also naming Lakeview Park. 
“They have much to offer historically, ecologically and environmentally to the citizens, and we are pleased that we have a partnership agreement with the city of Elyria for us to come in and take over the operations and renovations and to implement a new master plan for Cascade.”
Cascade Park is a smaller-scale version of some of the nation’s magnificent parks, with river, rocks, waterfalls, hemlock forests and interesting geology. The bedrock formed 320 to 345 million years ago. Sycamores grow in the floodplain, along with buckeye trees, willows and other specimens.  
Meanwhile, the park has a rich history with fortress sites along the Black River that are thought to have been built thousands of years ago. The valley attracted Native Americans, pioneers and settlers. Cascade Park was named in 1894 when the Ely family deeded a portion of the valley to the city of Elyria. Now, the park includes the stretch of valley from the east and west waterfalls to the Route 57 bridge. 
The city of Elyria has 360 acres of parkland in the city, with Cascade Park making up nearly half of that space. “There is a great deal of pride and history in this park, and it has always been one of Elyria’s main attractions,” Ziemnik says. 

Programming the Parks
The potential for growth and improvement at Cascade Park is promising. Ziemnik relates how the Metro Parks’ partnership agreement with Lakeview Park in the city of Lorain has resulted in ongoing park improvements and a “wildly successful” destination. “It has been one of the most popular parks, visitation-wise,” he says, noting the renovation of a bathhouse into a restaurant and visitors center and the installation of two amphitheaters.  
Ziemnik says the success at Lakeview Park drew attention from other park systems, including Cleveland Metroparks, when it took over operation of Edgewater Park in 2013, spurring renovations, cleanup and programming. “We had many conversations with the folks from Cleveland Metroparks,” Ziemnik says, explaining that they were inspired by Lakeview’s positive changes. 
As Lorain County Metro Parks’ extends its commitment to enriching communities with green space at Cascade Park, Ziemnik is optimistic about how the park’s transformation will strengthen the city of Elyria and beyond.
Connectivity is a big part of making that happen, and Ziemnik is talking about people: “It’s not just physical trail connectivity; it’s the connectivity of activities and programs to get people to the parks,” he says. “That’s the big picture.”
For example, at French Creek Reservation, a partnership with TrueNorth Cultural Arts has resulted in live theater productions at the French Creek Art & Nature Center, including six main stage performances annually and a Family Life series. Lakeview Park’s Music Under the Stars is an expanding summer concert series. And at Miller Nature Preserve in Avon, a Thursday night concert series draws up to 200 people for a range of musical acts. 
“We look for every opportunity to find ways to get people to the parks,” Ziemnik says, relating that the Metro Parks is expanding its partnership in Lorain. “The collaboration, [power] of nature, our trail systems and the activities we offer have a great impact on the health, fitness and wellbeing of citizens in the county,” he says. “We offer a great resource, and we are impressing on people that we will continue to do that.”

There’s a Park For That

Take Pictures
Schoepfle Gardens: Capture seasonal color with lush displays of hydrangea and rhododendron, azaleas and tulips in spring, and an ever-changing palette of plants and flowers that evolve through summer and fall. 
Miller Nature Preserve: Inside the conservatory you’ll find orchids, ferns and exotic plants. 

Black River Reservation: Five and a half miles of paved trails wind through meadow and woods, crossing the Black River via a railroad bridge and traversing through the old steel mill for an industry-meets-nature perspective.  

  Bird Watch
Sandy Ridge Reservation: The meadows at Sandy Ridge are home to a couple of eagle pairs and water fowl. 
Wellington Reservation: Spot a range of species in flight or nestled in their habitats. 

French Creek Reservation: A kayak launch gives residents the opportunity to paddle up and down the Black River. 
Wellington Reservation: Take a paddleboat out on the reservoir (free) from Memorial Day through Labor Day. A new kayak launch provides a second paddling option at this location. 

Black River Reservation / Wellington Reservation: Join a full moon hike, offered monthly.
 Gather with Friends
Lakeview Park: The Music Under the Stars concert series June through September offers monthly concerts with a range of bands. Watch the sun go down over Lake Erie — after that, the stars form a backdrop for the band. 

  Attend Camp
Learn About Nature: A range of camps for children of all ages expose young people to nature and outdoor life. New this year is Leadership Camp for students in grades 9 through 12. It provides them opportunities to learn about themselves and the value of teamwork, including field trips and a camp service project. Also new is a Wild Wetlands Camp, where students in grades 5 through 7 can learn about birds, bugs, reptiles and other wetlands wildlife. Programming begins at preschool and up. 

  Splash Around
Inclusive Playground at Holstein Reservation: Located behind Mercy Health & Recreation Center, the inclusive playground offers a place for children of all ages and abilities to play, featuring a tree house, sand pit and fishing pond. A splash pad opened in 2014 with free admission. 

  Make Music
The Schoepfle Children’s Garden: The music-themed garden includes a “rocky” G clef, a flute-a-pillar and restored carousel. Creative programming includes teddy bear parties, Peter Pan teas and more.