Hikers and nature enthusiasts won’t be able to miss the entrance to Akron’s newest park. At the entry to Cascade Park’s Valley View Area stands a 19-foot stainless steel sculpture, the sunlight reflecting off a metal entanglement of sun beams symbols and imagery of former farming equipment that once worked the land.
But “Sun Tracker,” sculpted by local artist Don Drumm, is just the gateway to the beauty beyond the parking lot: a sprawling landscape of wetlands, uplands, meadows dotted with black-eyed Susans and, of course, the flowing Cuyahoga River.
Not much of that landscape, however, was visible even five years ago. Valley View, throughout its long and storied history, was a golf course in most recent memory. Despite its longtime private ownership, the property has always been in the sights of Summit Metro Parks and was first identified for conservation in the park’s original master plan in 1925.
Now, almost 100 years later, that vision is realized and the park is opened to the public as of Aug. 30.
“We are celebrating our (Summit Metro Parks) 100th anniversary, so it seems apropo to celebrate the nature here,” said Herb Newman, chair of Summit Metro Parks’ Board of Park Commissioners, at the park’s Aug. 30 dedication. “We have a unique opportunity here to give Mother Nature back what she originally created for us.”
Summit Metro Parks acquired the property in 2016 after it operated as Valley View Golf Course for more than five decades. Park staff and volunteers devoted five years to restoring 175 acres of natural area and a mile of the Cuyahoga River to its original landscape — an arduous task that required excavation of wetlands and the river, reforestation, replanting native flower species and more, said Chief of Conservation Mike Johnson.
The $6 million river restoration project was fully funded by foundation, state and local grants.
For now, just one 1.6-mile trail welcomes visitors who are eager to lace up their hiking boots and explore Valley View, but Celebration Trail is just a patchwork of trails to come. Additional trails, amenities and river access, such as a kayak launching area scheduled for construction in the spring and a bike trail that will connect to the 87-mile Towpath Trail, are still to come.
In addition to natural restoration, Summit Metro Parks also unveiled the newly renovated Himelright Lodge. Built in the 1800s, the Himelright barn operated as one of Akron’s last dairy farms until the property was sold in 1956 to golf course developers. The lodge will now operate as an event space with updated features and a park overlook. The parks district also plans to create an event area outside with string lights, picnic tables and reinforced pavement for large event tents or food trucks.
“I remember growing up and being here, and it’s really exciting that my family’s property dating back so many generations is now a park,” said Harry Himelright, a Cuyahoga Falls resident whose grandfather sold the property when he was 6 years old.
The park staff also worked to engage and include residents living near the Valley View area, particularly focusing on immigrants and refugees in North Hill. The park sits just on the edge of the neighborhood.
“What we learned working with the International Institute in these conversations was just a lot of these community leaders saying, ‘We don’t use the parks because we don’t know what to do in them,’” said Megan Shaeffer, Summit Metro Parks’ cultural resource coordinator. “As a park district, that is definitely a barrier. We learned from working with the International Institute that for them, being able to come together for celebratory events is extremely important, so we wanted to provide a space where they could do that.”
The parks district is currently coordinating with the International Institute to offer the Himelright Lodge as a year-round event space for gathering, performances, festivals and more. Summit Metro Parks will accept reservations from the public in October for events beginning in January 2022.
“We are really excited to get people in here to see what we’ve done and what’s coming,” said Summit Metro Parks Executive Director Lisa King. “This site has an incredible history beginning with indigenous people who used it for transportation and natural resources to the Himelright family dairy farm back in the 1800s to a racially integrated housing development in the 1940s. Every park has not just one, but several stories, just like this one, so it’s really exciting that people can experience that.”
Abbey Marshall covers economic development for The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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