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‘Father of the parks system’ to retire

Kate Carlson/The Holland Sentinel • Jan 18, 2019 at 2:00 PM

Longtime Ottawa County parks chief John Scholtz is retiring this summer, but he doesn’t plan on retiring his love for enjoying the parks he has helped develop.

Ottawa County’s parks have come a long way since Scholtz became the county’s parks and recreation director more than three decades ago.

Scholtz, 65, became director in 1987, shortly after the Ottawa County Parks and Recreation Commission was formed. At the time, there were about 400 acres of park land in the county across nine parks.

“The parks were in really pretty awful shape when I started, so that was a good opportunity to make things look better,” Scholtz said. “The first parks commission was really focused on that.”

The early years

The newly formed commission also knew right away that it needed to expand wherever possible, Scholtz said. A realistic goal for what could be maintained was set at about 7,000 acres.

“We realized we really needed to have a lot more park land in the park system because we’d been the fastest-growing county now for quite a while,” Scholtz said. “In the mid-’90s, it all kind of came to a head where things were really growing fast and people were watching properties develop they maybe thought would always stay undeveloped.”

The park commission’s vision of having the foresight to set aside land early on is key to the system’s success today, Scholtz said.

“Quality of life goes down as metro areas go up,” he said. “If you don’t act early to preserve the lands that you will need, it can be too late.”

This realization was a factor in the pushing for a millage to support the parks system, which was approved by county voters in 1996. The 10-year millage has been renewed ever since, and has grown in public support from 53.5 percent voter approval in 1996 to 73 percent in 2016.

“If there is one thing that really has allowed us to be successful with growth and improvement of the parks system, it’s the parks millage, and that really comes from citizens approving it,” Scholtz said. “That’s been the overriding thing.”

A successful term

Scholtz humbly attributes a lot of the parks department’s success to the commission, the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, foundations that support the parks, park staff and volunteers, and county staff and leadership.

“We’ve really had good leadership in the county, and that creates an environment that allows things to happen,” he said. “We’ve been so well-managed over the years and financially sound that you can dream about doing things like parks.”

Scholtz will be a difficult person to replace, said Ottawa County Administrator Al Vanderberg. He calls Scholtz the “father of the parks system,” even though Scholtz finds the nickname too grandiose.

“John has just had an attitude of humility and constant improvement,” Vanderberg said. “He is the one who has really been the designer.”

There is still work left to do, but as Scholtz looks to retirement, he is happy with the condition of the system’s 27 parks, 12 open space lands, 136.5 miles of trail and 6,731 total acres of park land.

When he retires June 14, Scholtz looks forward to spending more time traveling with his wife and enjoying some of his hobbies like woodworking, fly-fishing, gardening and hiking. The Spring Lake native has two adult daughters and now resides in Grand Haven.

“I love this job and it’s been everything to me, but it’s been pretty all-consuming,” he said. “It’s hard to do it partway. It’s either all in or not at all.”

Scholtz received his master’s degree in parks and recreation resources from Michigan State University and knew he wanted to work in natural resources. He made a point of getting his first job in a county parks system, and spent six years as the director of Saginaw County Parks before coming back to Ottawa County.

All along there was some knowledge of people’s physical and mental health benefiting from being outside, Scholtz said, but there is a new emphasis today.

“People’s mental and physical health is tied to exposure to nature and getting people outside, and hiking out in nature has really proved to be a very positive thing,” he said.

What the future holds

A lot of the land the county has amassed is undeveloped, Scholtz said, so there are opportunities to change and grow as people’s needs change.

At the beginning, there were only parks where people could hike for a mile or two, Scholtz explained, and people wanted bigger experiences out of the parks. They worked to develop Pigeon Creek, which offers more than 10 miles of trails for hikers, bikers and equestrians. In the winter, the park serves as a destination for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and sledding.

One thing the parks department realized more and more is being a good steward of natural lands, and fighting invasive species takes a lot of work, Scholtz said.

(Invasive species) has, unfortunately, gotten to be a significant situation,” he said. “So, if we’re not actively managing our lands, we’re not going to be able to pass along healthy parks to future generations, and we want them to be able to see our natural lands like they should be — invasive-free.”

Protecting natural land while creating opportunities for people to experience nature is “a balancing act,” Scholtz said.

“I’m proud of the way we’ve developed our parks in still making sure we preserve what’s special about them from the natural landscape point,” he added.

When Scholtz first became the parks and recreation manager, he worked methodically toward realizing his vision, said David VanGinhoven, president of the Ottawa County Parks and Recreation Commission.

“I think what strikes me is his amazing ability to connect with people,” said VanGinhoven, who has been on the parks commission for the past 10 years. “He has a really natural way of presenting information in a forthright manner in an unassuming way that makes his point. It’s a real honest way of working.”

This way of working was tested early in Scholtz’s career as the county pushed to acquire its first major natural area, Rosy Mound. Acquiring the Grand Haven Township property involved several disputes in the Michigan Supreme Court. The Rosy Mound Natural Area has frontage along Lake Michigan and is now one of the more popular areas in the park system.

In his final months at the helm, Scholtz hopes to make progress on master planning at Ottawa Sands, as well as completing the Grand River Greenway and the Idema Explorers Trail, and the Macatawa Greenway land and trail.

The county is actively trying to purchase more land and easements to complete the greenways.

“In each case, you have a series of parks that have a lot of value, but once they’re linked together the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” Scholtz said. “It will really have a lot more value overall.”

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