Delaware News

Given blank slate, Au steered fledgling parks system

County park system's only director plans to retire after 25 years of service

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JOSHUA A. BICKEL/THISWEEKNEWS
Rita Au, executive director of Preservation Parks of Delaware County is retiring at the end of March.
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When Rita Au was hired 25 years ago to guide a new organization, Preservation Parks of Delaware County, it was a perfect fit.

Au, who plans to retire as the park system's executive director in late March, said she loves the experience of building something from the ground up. She met her match in Preservation Parks.

Au, a Liberty Township resident, said when she was hired as Preservation Parks' first director, the park system was more of an idea than a reality.

"It existed on paper," she said. "There was zero amount of land owned. There was zero anything owned."

Jim Bargar, who was appointed to the parks system's board of commissioners in 1989, agreed with Au's assessment. Although Preservation Parks of Delaware County was established in the mid-1970s, Bargar said it was Au's arrival that finally solidified the county's decision to make the park system a reality.

"When we hired her, that's when we really started the system," he said. "We didn't have any money. We had no land. It was just a concept and an idea."

That seemed like a distant memory when the 188-acre Shale Hollow Preserve opened last year, joining seven other preserves and the Big Walnut Community Trail in the park system. During Au's tenure, the district's staff also has grown -- from one to 28.

Au said overseeing the continued evolution of the park system is what she'll miss most about the job.

"I think (I'll miss) the opportunity to be creative and basically ... bring something into existence," she said.

Bargar, who served on the Preservation Parks board until 2013 and previously worked as a park planner for Metro Parks in Columbus, said he and his fellow commissioners hired Au because of that creativity and her work ethic.

"She's a very sharp gal (and a) very energetic person," he said. "When she sees something has to be done, she goes after it and gets it done."

Au said the park system struggled to gain support from county officials and the agricultural community in the early to mid-1990s. County voters turned down park levies six times before a 0.4-mill levy finally passed in 1999.

"(Many people) thought we had enough parks," she said. "They didn't see the need for any more green space."

Bargar said Au kept pushing the parks despite the opposition and an often-uninterested public. Bargar said sometimes only one or two people would show up to Preservation Parks programs in the early days, with one of the two attending just so they could tell Au the county was wasting time and money on the system.

"She was able to persevere in spite of all of this opposition we were getting," he said.

Ultimately, Au said she believes it was the county's rapid population growth that pushed the seventh levy attempt over the top in 1999. She said residents moving to Delaware County from Columbus and its suburbs were surprised the county didn't have a thriving park system.

"The people moving into the counties were wanting more amenities and (a better) quality of life," she said.

With the levy's passage, the Preservation Parks finally began to blossom. And with years of hopes and plans built up, the 2000s were a bumper decade.

Preservation Parks soon hired an in-house parks planner -- a move Au called "pretty much unheard of" for a park system the size of Delaware County's. That move allowed the system to enter what Au called "warp-speed development" and open eight parks within the first nine years after the levy passed.

Au said park officials wanted to make sure residents all over the county would see the benefit of finally approving the levy as soon as possible.

"We wanted to show what we were talking about," she said. "We wanted to make sure people knew what they voted for."

While the drive to open parks was at "warp speed," the system still took its time on major projects and improvements.

The planning for Shale Hollow, for instance, began in the mid-1990s, while property acquisition began in the mid-2000s. The preserve, located just west of U.S. Route 23 off Artesian Run in Lewis Center, features 20- to 40-foot-tall shale cliffs and preserves the home of deer, woodpeckers, salamanders and other animals.

In 2008, county voters approved a 10-year, 0.6-mill replacement levy that allowed the district to continue to improve its existing parks and to plan for future projects.

Au said she saw the approval of the replacement levy as a sign that county residents were satisfied with the job the park system was doing. She said attendance growth in recent years also has been reassuring.

As it seeks a new director, Preservation Parks has plenty of projects in the pipeline. Au said a river trail, a nature center and upgrades at its current facilities are among the improvements planned.

She said the challenges the system will face include "finding the appropriate land and negotiating reasonable purchases."

"They'll experience some growing pains," Au said. "We have grown quickly."

Preservation Parks has not yet named Au's replacement, but park officials said an offer has been made to a candidate after a nationwide search.

Au's plans for retirement include traveling the country with her husband. They have set the goal of visiting all of the country's national parks.

Even after her retirement, Au said she will remain a presence at the Preservation Parks. In fact, she said now she might have more time to visit the parks than she did while she was working.

Au said the parks serve as a physical reminder of what she, parks staff and volunteers accomplished during her tenure as executive director.

"It's been very rewarding to look back and say, 'Man, I think we did something good that will last for a long time,' " she said.

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