The park's new executive director has been praised by local residents, park staff and administration.
By IAN HILL
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
VISITORS TO PIONEER PAVILION IN Mill Creek Park most likely haven't noticed the cracks in the pavilion's hand-cut stone walls.
The historical beauty of the 181-year-old pavilion, a two-story structure that looks like an old English workhouse, can distract visitors from the flaws.
For Susan Dicken, however, the cracks are a matter of concern.
Dicken, the new executive director of Mill Creek MetroParks, often works behind the scenes to help fix problems that may not be evident to most park visitors. Those problems include the cracks that pockmark the mortar in the pavilion walls.
"It's just like taking care of an old house. It takes a lot more to take care of it," Dicken said of the park. "Because it's so old, it needs special care."
On a typical day, Dicken could be found in the park looking at damage caused by a landslide, a fallen tree, or years of freezing conditions and driving rains. She also spends time working in her office at the MetroParks farm on state Route 46 in Canfield, or at park facilities talking with volunteers who are preparing for community events.
"I've got hip boots in my closet. I could be out walking in a stream or in a boardroom at a meeting," said Dicken, who was promoted June 25 from development director to executive director by the park board. She replaced William J. Schollaert, who served as park superintendent and executive director for 21 years before retiring in April.
Her salary is $75,000 annually.
'The best job'
"I have to say I think I have the best job in Mahoning County," Dicken said.
Dicken examined the cracks in the pavilion walls with park maintenance director Tom Fountaine, part-time park engineer Mark Fisher, and Larry Tost, a foreman with a Pittsburgh restoration company. She said the park board most likely would seek bids from companies that would replace some of the mortar and fill the cracks.
Fountaine said he believes Dicken has brought an openness to her job that is helping to encourage communication between park management and employees.
"It's a welcome change, to say the least," Fountaine said.
Alicia George, a Canfield resident and park volunteer, said she believes Dicken "brings a personable approach to everyone."
Dicken recently spent time talking to George and other volunteers as they prepared for the annual garden party at Fellows Riverside Gardens. The party is a fund-raiser sponsored by Friends of Fellows Riverside Gardens, a volunteer organization working to preserve the gardens.
As Dicken walked through the garden, volunteers were busy raising tents, preparing plants, and setting up papier-mache & acute; animals for the party. She told many of the volunteers that she felt they were helping to set the stage for an exciting event.
"I want everybody to know we appreciate what they're doing," Dicken said. "A big job of the executive director is to show people we care."
Edward Goist, who works with Dicken to obtain environmental grants for the Mahoning Valley, described Dicken as "very user-friendly."
"She's very much concerned with the users of the facilities," added Goist, who is the chief operating officer for Animal Charity in Youngstown.
A recent day for Dicken began just before 8 a.m., when she arrived at the park office wearing comfortable shoes and carrying snacks for a morning meeting.
"I work intensely from the moment I come in until the moment I leave," she said. She starts her morning by reviewing park schedules and talking with her employees in her office.
A work day
Here's a look at a recent 12-hour work day.
She met with Fountaine, Fisher and Tost to talk about ways to repair a stone wall that had fallen away in a landslide. Dirt behind the 16-foot-high wall had been slowly washed away by draining water, causing it to collapse into a pile of stones.
The wall had held up a 10-foot section of the Artist's Trail.
Dicken noted that the 2,600-acre park can present many unexpected problems for the park maintenance staff, including crumbling hills and blocked streams.
"It's not like you're working for the street department," she said.
The park board has included $1.5 million for the maintenance department in this year's $10.2 million general fund budget. The largest expense in the budget is for salaries and wages, which are expected to cost $5.1 million. Most of the money for the budget comes from the 1.75-mill, 15-year replacement park levy that was approved by voters last year.
Tost said he wasn't sure how much it would cost to repair the wall along Artist's Trail. Fisher noted that workers repairing the wall would have to be careful "to maintain the beauty."
Dicken said she hopes for work on the wall to begin in September or October.
Damage from tree
Later, she inspected damage caused by an oak tree that had fallen from a hillside in the park. The oak, about 2 feet in diameter, smashed the gorge trail's wooden boardwalk and crashed into Mill Creek.
The boardwalk was repaired by park maintenance staff and the gorge trail was reopened about 10 days after the tree fell. Leaves and branches still clogged the creek, however, leaving only a small stream that allowed a family of ducks to swim by. Park forestry workers cut the tree in half to begin removing it.
A portion of the tree landed on a large, flat rock along the bank of the creek. Dicken said she and her husband and two sons had picnics and read to each other on the rock when the family first moved to the area from Pittsburgh in 1985. She added that she has fond memories of her sons playing in the park.
"That's what Mill Creek park is, a place to create memories," she said.
Both of Dicken's sons are now in college, and she and her husband live in Boardman.
Dicken, 50, grew up on a dairy farm in Carroll County. She said she always knew she wanted to work outdoors, adding, "I say I have soil in my veins."
She received her bachelor's degree in park administration and recreation from Ohio State University in 1974. She worked in planning in Akron and Pittsburgh until her husband, who works for LTV Copperweld, was transferred to the Mahoning Valley in 1985.
After moving to Boardman, Dicken called the park office and offered to volunteer as a specialist in land and water conservation. Instead, she was hired as a planning specialist. Dicken was promoted to director of park development in 1989.
Meetings are part of her routine. On this day, she participated in a meeting to discuss a federal grant program designed to help reduce water pollution. Others at the meeting included Goist and representatives from Consumers Water Co., Youngstown State University and the Mahoning County Soil and Water Conservation District.
Dicken stressed that she believes park officials must work with representatives from local organizations, businesses and government to do what's best for the park.
"The time of doing things by yourself is over. It doesn't work," she said.
The group proposed using grants to help contractors reduce pollution that flows into streams from construction sites. In 2000, the group received $300,000 from the federal program to pay for conservation easements as well as education and outreach programs.
The deadline to apply for the grant is in September.
Project for farm
After the meeting, she talked with Goist about creating a vineyard at the park's 326-acre farm. The farm includes classrooms, gardens, meadows and a pond.
Park staff members also have a barn at the farm to house turkeys, pigs, horses and other livestock used for educational programs. The most recent additions to the barn are two pygmy goats born in July.
Most visitors to the farm are pupils, Dicken said.
Dicken noted that the park board is planning to buy 66 acres of forest next to the farm after the first of next year. She said that during the next three years, she wants to open a hiking trail that will take local residents through the ecosystems at the farm.
A hike on the trail would be like a hike through ecosystems in various parts of Mahoning County, she said.
Goist said he wants to try to grow hybrid grapes for wine-making at the farm. He is planning to begin making wine at his Cornersburg home and hopes to grow fruit that can survive Ohio's cold climate and still taste like European wine grapes.
Dicken said she thinks Goist's proposal could benefit the community by helping to develop new local businesses. She said she expects to meet with Goist to discuss finding a business grant for the proposal.
Part of her day was spent interacting with park employees who were setting up for an evening concert at Morley Performing Arts Pavilion. She noted that since she was promoted to executive director, she has worked hard to get to know the staff.
"They're on the front lines. The best recommendations should come from them," Dicken said.
She also stressed that she wants her fellow employees to know that she hasn't changed since her promotion.
Her day ended with a 7 p.m. meeting of the park board at the experimental farm. It was the first park board meeting that Dicken attended as executive director.
Board President Harry Meshel noted during the meeting that he has received several comments from local residents and park staff impressed with Dicken's work as executive director. "Everybody keeps telling me that you're doing a good job," he said.