By David Vasarhelyi
West Creek is a tributary of the Cuyahoga River, with a 20-square-mile watershed that flows through the city of Parma, Ohio, an urban environment of 90,000 people. The threat of 400 acres being developed into a golf course in 1995 very near another golf course prompted the formation of the West Creek Preservation Committee by 1997. The issues were watershed protection by the preservation of remaining natural areas within the watershed, and increasing the awareness and support for the preservation of the natural areas of those who live within the watershed.
The imminent development of a piece of land within the West Creek Watershed which was once deemed unsuitable for development stimulated four people to gather around a table and decide how to preserve it. The problem was how to raise awareness and instill in the community a sense of ownership of this wonderful piece of land. Education was the key issue why is this land better as a natural park and greenway than as a golf course? Groundbreaking for the resultant 180-acre dedicated state nature preserve called West Creek Preserve occurred in October of 2000. The project is ongoing in other areas where development threatens the watershed.
What do you consider the key to your success?
Awareness and education without a doubt were critical to opening doors and eventually getting an issue on the ballot. People lived in the vicinity of West Creek all their lives, yet did not realize it was there and how special a resource it was. Visualizing the dream was important. Actually realizing that this project could be conceived and carried out was critical.
A brochure was put together and every single resident and business received it. People were just overwhelmed when they received it. They were calling to ask questions and get involved. Members went to Parent Teacher Associations, Boards of Education, elected officials, etc. – anyone who would listen. The dream seemed impossible at the time but by reaching out to everyone who would listen some of the contacts panned out, resulting in our success story.
How would you outline the steps in organizing your project to advise another group on a similar project?
1. Find a core group of a few key committee people with energy and time. (For us, from a core group of four committee members, a 700-member organization grew).
2. Develop a relationship with local government early in the process. Never give them a reason to write you off. Take challenging individuals and situations simply as that challenges to be overcome. The key thing is to foster a relationship with local government.
3. Foster a relationship with the media (keep the story fresh and in front of people).
4. Present your story to every organization that you can.
What have been the effects of this effort on your organization’s work?
It made the organization grow to over 700 members. The awareness that the project could actually happen grew and the community realized that the committee was doing something for them. Memberships and offers of help came in. This resulted in the formation of a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.
How has the project affected your community?
The community has embraced the project. People are walking the trails and new members of the community just love discovering the resource. It is an area in the town of Parma that belongs to the residents. Outlook of the community in general is that this land is theirs and special in a world of development. They are taking ownership of West Creek. With increased awareness comes increased energy for greenspace preservation, resulting in a successful issue on the November 2000 ballot that will provide three million dollars for 100 additional acres for the West Creek Reserve.
What particular stumbling blocks, challenges, or defeats did you encounter?
Going head to head with developers who might have deep pockets versus the West Creek Committee’s lack of money was a definite challenge. Creative funding was necessary and also was a challenge. Putting the time into finding grant money or other funding sources was a necessary challenge and certainly required the dedication of individuals who clearly visualized the final goal. An all-volunteer organization is a challenge to time and energy. It is absolutely necessary to find and foster partnerships and then work well with them.
How many people were involved (initially v/s finally)?
The project started with four individuals sitting around a table and an idea and has grown to over 700 members.
How many people-hours were spent on the various aspects of the project?
Many, many—do not be discouraged! It is all worth it, to yourself and to the community.
How was public involvement motivated and facilitated?
We found that an active public education campaign, like that made possible by the GLANHF grant, is an excellent use of money and time to promote conservation initiatives. As people learned about the project through networking, programs, presentations, and public displays, they wanted to become involved and many contacted their local officials to express support for the project. We found that once public officials heard support for the project from their constituents, they became very approachable and willing to bring it to the forefront.
The grant was instrumental in printing and distributing multiple quarterly issues of the newsletter, Notes from West Creek, to a mailing list generated from sign-up at events and programs. An additional 5,000 copies of one of the quarterly newsletters were delivered to all households in two of the wards that comprise the watershed. Volunteers delivered these newsletters door-to-door to save on postage costs.
Various display materials were produced (slides, photographs, laminated maps and drawings, project brochures, concept booklets, meeting notices). Public outreach events such as speakers at public meetings, hikes, and annual West Creek Cleanup invited the area residents to become personally involved. Presentations and events were generally well attended and comments and reactions were always overwhelmingly supportive for protecting West Creek and establishing the West Creek Preserve and Greenway. Newsletter distribution and events resulted in additional inquiries and memberships. Membership in the organization increased by about 20% during the grant period.
How was public education a component of your program?
A partnership with the local school board was an important aspect. School education will happen on the project as the area and programs mature. A local school system is considering including an educational land lab and class projects such as water quality monitoring as part of the West Creek Preserve and Greenway Project. Community awareness was the most important component.
What was the primary means of communication?
Public meetings and mailings provided the most contact. An interesting approach for mailing of newsletters was to pick one of nine different wards, print up enough extra newsletter copies, and mail to every home in the selected ward.
What resources were available/acquired/tapped into?
The total cost of the project was $5,400, $2,000 of which was provided by GLAHNF. A matching George Gund Foundation Grant plus $400 from the West Creek Preservation Committee provided the additional project monies. Much volunteer effort was utilized. Plant inventories by a university, trail marking by Boy Scouts, engineering recommendations from a local environmental engineer, and graphic art design by a graphic artist are just some of the volunteer resources that the project used.
What level of media exposure were you able to obtain and how did it affect your efforts?
We had good media coverage. It was invaluable to the effort. So many more people read the newspaper than receive and read the newsletter, that it was a real plus to cultivate media coverage. The secret is to constantly refresh the issue with each new project of the organization until it becomes a part of the community-and then the media responds.
Important: Don’t be afraid to talk to the media. Don’t be afraid to cold-call someone about the project. You have something that is of value to the community. Let them know what value it has and keep the story fresh with updates.
West Creek Preservation Committee
P.O. Box 347113
Parma, Ohio 44134