Jack Sutton admits that early in his career, "I pretty much contributed to the urban sprawl in Atlanta."

Sutton has more than atoned for any Georgia "sprawl sins" with a 23-year career taking care of the Hamilton County Parks. The Cincinnati native, with a degree in landscape architecture and planning, began his career in the early 1980s working for developers in the booming Atlanta area. Sutton says he always wanted to work in the public sector with green spaces.

After a stint with the Georgia State Parks, he moved back to his hometown in 1988, taking a job with the Hamilton County Parks District. He became its executive director in 2002. As the chief steward of 24 parks, eight golf courses and 50 miles of trails, Sutton has also fostered ambitious nature education and outreach programs for children and adults.

Budget Challenges

The challenge now is to live with diminishing budgets, like most government entities, after an impressive expansion of the park system over the last couple decades, fueled by new levies in 1988 and 2002.

Based on changes by the legislature, including a reduction in levy income, the park district faces a $10 million budget reduction over the next five years, according to Sutton. For 2012, its annual budget has been cut from $33 million to $30 million, causing a cutback in services with layoffs.

"We're leaner, but we'll be OK," Sutton says. "We have put in a plan to be sustainable. We will hopefully be in a strong position for voters to support us when the levy comes up (in 2017)."

According to Sutton, 55 percent of the budget comes from levy and tax income; 45 percent from user fees.

Seeking Support

To help weather the storm, the district has sought additional community support adding two notable board members in June "” restaurateur "Buddy" LaRosa and retired attorney Ginger Warner, a University of Cincinnati board member and avid gardener. They join commissioners Robert A. Goering Sr., who has served since 1994, John T. Reis and Joseph C. Seta.

Sutton thinks LaRosa's input will keep the district focused on serving the public. "He brings skills in customer service and efficiency from running a retail restaurant chain for 60 years. We're focused on guest services. I've noticed he is already keying on those priorities."

Meanwhile, Sutton has one grand dream he hopes to see fulfilled in the next few years "” connecting the Little Miami Bike Trail from its terminus in Newtown to the central riverfront. Funding is already in place to take the trail down Route 32 to the Beechmont Levee. Funding needs to be found for the link crossing the levee and the Little Miami to hook up with the Lunken bike path as well as the missing links that would end at the new Smale Park on the central riverfront.

That would then complete a trail running along the Little Miami to Springfield, over to Columbus, northeast to Akron, then hooking up with the Cuyahoga Valley system to Cleveland. Yes, we'd have a 3C bike trail even if high-speed rail connecting the state's three biggest cities seems dead.

"The Ohio Erie Trail will be a statewide 450-mile trail," said Sutton. "One could bike from the Roebling Suspension Bridge to Lake Erie."

Sharing Secret Jewels

While the district has such crown jewels as Shawnee Lookout, Winton Woods and the nationally-acclaimed Vineyard Golf Course, Sutton likes to point out a couple of well-kept secrets in the park district:

"¢ The recently developed 335-acre Glenwood Gardens (Route 4 and Glendale-Milford Road, contiguous to Winton Woods) has a formal gardens, gift shop, storybook-themed play area as well as forest and wetland trails.

"It's a compact area, but has (everything from) high-end horticulture gardens to rough wilderness and wetland areas," Sutton said.

"It is a one-stop shop for everything we do across Hamilton County."

"¢ Each Friday in the summer, adults (16 and older) can participate in an archeological dig that has been ongoing at Shawnee Lookout under the direction of Dr. Ken Tankersley of the University of Cincinnati.

"They find things every day amid the Native American mounds. Pottery, arrowheads, tools. "

You can learn how to catalogue and see the minutiae that happens in a true archeology dig."