East Cleveland residents urge Metroparks, city to revitalize Forest Hill Park after deal falls apart
East Cleveland resident Donté Gibbs has fond childhood memories at Forest Hill Park: playing baseball, feeding ducks at the pond and attending family barbecues.
But over the years, he said the park’s amenities, facilities and maintenance has slipped. Overgrown weeds and foliage overwhelm cracked tennis courts and baseball diamond dugouts. There’s no running water, electricity or public restrooms, he said.
That’s why when news came of a potential deal between Cleveland Metroparks and the city of East Cleveland to revitalize East Cleveland’s portion of the 248-acre park, which was once part of John D. Rockefeller’s estate, Gibbs was optimistic.
That hope, however, quickly faded when the deal fell apart after goodwill on both sides apparently soured. East Cleveland City Council President Juanita Gowdy claimed in an August letter to Metroparks CEO Brian Zimmerman that a Metroparks employee collected a $2 million check from the city before the deal was finalized or brought before City Council, an accusation Cleveland Metroparks denied before backing out of the deal.
The collapse has left residents holding the bag.
“The first emotions were embarrassment and frustration,” Gibbs said of learning the news. “When you think about the politics and dynamics, it’s like, 'How did we get to the point where we’re about to throw away this multi-million investment?'”
Gibbs sprung into action and convened a meeting of neighbors and community stakeholders at his East Cleveland home.
“It’s sort of like abyss in the city now, but … I kind of view [the park] as this hidden gem,” Gibbs said. “You know it’s there, but you’re trying to figure out how do I engage with it, how do I utilize it?”
He and his neighbors, who call their group “For the Love of Forest Hill,” drafted letters to both Cleveland Metroparks and East Cleveland City Council urging them to return to the negotiating table. Gibbs mailed the letters Monday with over 400 resident signatures. A similar online petition has more than 500 signatures.
“This is something East Cleveland residents and the region has been looking forward to for generations,” Gibbs said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime infusion of expertise and a way for us to really show the region this is how you intentionally bring life into a historic park: working with community, working with elected officials and a park system like Metroparks.”
The $2 million check had recently been returned undeposited to the mayor's office and voided, according to Gowdy, East Cleveland's city council president, and the city's Council Clerk Eric Brewer.
Officials did not produce records documenting the finances involved in the deal.
The city is planning to use its federal stimulus dollars to proceed with its own park revitalization plan without Metroparks, Gowdy said.
Cleveland Metroparks declined to comment further on the matter.