John Scholtz and his “coyote experience” vision for Ottawa County Parks

John Scholtz recalls many memorable encounters in nearly 32 years of leading the Ottawa County parks system.

Meetings with neighbors who needed convincing that a new park was a good idea. Meetings with township officials who questioned taxable land becoming park land. Meetings with property owners holding competing offers from developers.

But the best encounters? Maybe the doe and two fawns Scholtz found grazing in the Pigeon River shallows, as a bull snake hissed near his feet. Maybe the flock of tundra swans flying up the Pigeon River corridor on a snowy morning. Maybe the coyote that locked eyes with him as he left a meeting with one of those reluctant property owners.

“I was leaving at dusk, going up the driveway, when all of a sudden this coyote came out of the woods, right in front of me, and stood and just looked at me. I stopped my car. It felt really true and wild. The look in his eye, he was just kind of looking at me. It made me feel like, wow, this is really wild land,” Scholtz recalls.

“There have been a number of instances like that, little wildlife encounters, that especially as you’re considering buying properties, are really kind of exciting.”

John Scholtz

John Scholtz, photo by Mark Sanchez (MiBiz)

Knowing others could have similar experiences fuels his excitement. “By creating these larger parks and preserving some of our natural lands, especially along the greenway corridors, we can ensure that people can have that coyote experience, that we can preserve this key infrastructure of greenspace that will keep interesting wildlife here long-term, as well as people being able to enjoy it,” he says.

John Scholtz is retiring just shy of 32 years of directing the Ottawa County Parks & Recreation Department. In that time, the department grew from a nine parks totaling 400 acres to 40 parks and open spaces covering nearly 7,000 acres.

With a master’s degree in parks and recreation management from Michigan State and after 10 years of leading the Saginaw County parks system, the Spring Lake native’s roots drew him toward Lake Michigan three decades ago.

He came on board as the first parks director when the Board of Commissioners moved control of county parks from the Road Commission to a new Parks Commission.

The Road Commission had done a nice job, given limited funding, Scholtz recalls. The county had three parks on Lake Michigan – North Beach, Kirk and Tunnel. On the Grand River were Riverside and Deer Creek. Four others were Hager, Spring Grove Grose, and Pigeon Creek.

Pigeon Creek’s story illustrates the evolution of the park system since then. Early on, park officials considered getting rid of Pigeon Creek. With just 112 acres, its main feature was an impassably overgrown scenic drive.

“You could see the potential, but it just needed some attention,” Scholtz recalls. That attention would include ski trails, grants for a lodge, buying and being gifted additional land. Today, Pigeon Creek’s 282 acres plus another 130 acres of county open space are among the busiest in the park system with skiing, sledding, biking, horse riding and hiking.

“Pigeon Creek stands out for me in a lot of respects because we took something that at one point we said, do we really want to keep this, and we made it into a destination,” Scholtz says.

pigeon creek

Pigeon Creek Park Lodge, photo by Mike Lozon

Many park projects would follow with similar long-term vision and persistence in putting together deals. And not just acquiring property, but acquiring “the right properties,” as Scholtz calls them – the unique and special and picturesque properties.

“His vision was clear from the beginning, and he never lost it, even when things were tough, even when there was opposition to some of the projects,” recalls Jean Laug Carroll, founding chair and longtime member of the Parks Commission.

“He saw from the beginning, Ottawa County had so much potential, so much undeveloped space, and quality space, particularly on the waterfront – the rivers and Lake Michigan,” she says. “His vision was sharp and inspiring.”

Carroll recalls that vision was evident even before Scholtz was hired. On a tour to assess the potential of the parks, she and Scholtz visited Hager Park, which had a rickety viewing stand above its large terrain map of the U.S. Carroll expressed fears someone would fall, that it should be taken down. But Scholtz already envisioned what would eventually become the popular Age of Discovery playground built around that map.

“John promptly turned that lemony situation into the idea for that wonderful playground. I was absolutely struck dumb by John’s saying we could take the platform down and build a playground around the map. It wouldn’t have occurred to me in my wildest dreams,” Carroll says.

hager park

Hager Park Age of Discovery Playground, photo by Mike Lozon

Rosy Mound Natural Area is another success story that ranks among Scholtz’s favorites. It was the first big project, he recalls, and tested what the new Parks Commission could accomplish.

“Of any property in the county, Rosy Mound just stands out. There’s two-thirds of a mile on Lake Michigan, high quality natural features … it just stood out.”

Negotiations were a challenge. Multiple meetings were held with neighbors. Some – who wanted the land to remain empty, but not have a park – weren’t realistic; alternative plans for condos were already on the drawing board. The process was an “eye-opener” for Scholtz on how people think – and offered lessons for future acquisitions.

The ability to bring people together around a vision is a talent that grows out of Scholtz’s personal strengths, Ottawa County Administrator Alan Vanderberg points out.

“While John has an amazing knowledge of parks design, management and maintenance, his most impactful attributes, in my opinion, are his personality traits:  humility, patience, integrity, guileless, dogged determination and an uncompromising standard of quality,” Vanderberg says.

“John has a unique coalition-building talent which has resulted in many state, private, and non-profit funding, conservation and education successes.”

Carroll, too, cites Scholtz’s approach.

“He always presented things without hyperbole. That’s not part of John’s repertoire; he does not overstate anything,” she says. His response was “measured” to any opposition.

“John waded into it with his calm demeanor, and he was able to lay out a plan in which people could see the economic benefits for Ottawa County by developing recreation value along the waterfront and along Lake Michigan.”

Also, she notes, the time was right for Scholtz’s vision. Cornfields were becoming subdivisions, lakefronts covered with condos, and people saw a need to preserve public land. Passage of the parks tax, in a county averse to taxation, is testament to people buying into that vision, Carroll said.

Today Rosy Mound, with its dramatic dunes and scenic beachfront, remains among Scholtz’s favorite parks, one he runs through from his home.

rosy mound natural area

Rosy Mound Natural Area, photo by Mike Lozon

Besides dealing with property owners, funding and land acquisition, Scholtz admits other challenges. He has some regrets about the time that meetings and weekend hours in the office took away from his young family. And while a boon to park acquisition and development, the successful 1996 property tax levy to fund parks brought its own burdens.

“It takes a lot of effort to spend money wisely,” he observes. “But I was really motivated with all these great opportunities to do neat stuff. I feel like all the park staff has found that same motivation, that, wow, we have a responsibility, we have an opportunity, we’ve got to take this seriously because people are counting on us.”

Opportunities like Rosy Mound and Pigeon Creek. Or Hemlock Crossing, where outstanding trails and river access resulted from a “gamble” to put together eight separate properties in “high-stress” project. But those deer and tundra swan sightings were part of that process, too.

More recently, Grand Ravines became a park, a stunning piece of land where Scholtz spent 15 years in talks with landowners – and came eye to eye with that coyote. Most recently, Ottawa Sands became a county park through complex funding and despite some desire that it remain private.

“In fact,” Scholtz allows, “all the acquisition have been stressful; you really have to push to make things happen.”

“It was not uncommon for John to get a very firm ‘no’ after an initial contact with a property owner regarding a desired property or easement purchase,” Vanderberg recalls.

“However, John’s extreme patience, humility and doggedness almost always resulted in a property owner decision to sell the county the property or easement.  I coined a phrase which made John cringe for several years, and then he came to just smile a little when I would say it: ‘There is nothing sure in life but death, taxes, and Ottawa County Parks.’”

For Scholtz, those complicated acquisitions are among his favorite accomplishments. “I think I get the most satisfaction out of that because you’re doing something kind of forever.”

grand ravines

Grand Ravines, photo by Mike Lozon

Scholtz is quick to credit the contributions of dedicated parks commissioners, department staff and county voters who funded parks. He also praises the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund that has provided millions of dollars. “I can’t say enough good stuff about that, the impact that it’s had,” he says, particularly when the county could leverage local millage dollars to attract more funds.

But driving it all, says Vanderberg, was Scholtz.

“John has been the main force and sparkplug that has created a county parks system which in my slightly biased opinion is the very finest in the state of Michigan,” he says.

“His tireless work from the beginning, when the parks were transferred from the Road Commission to the county, has transformed Ottawa County Parks and Ottawa County as well.  He has been a difference maker without whom the parks system would not be what it is today.”

And what of the future?

“We will miss John. I will miss John,” Vanderberg continues. “His replacement will have major shoes to fill.  However, he is also leaving the parks system in a great position for a new parks director to excel.”

From his perspective, Scholtz sees that funding will continue to be a challenge. The parks will need to be innovative and creative in funding, and use new options like the Ottawa County Parks Foundation.

But it also will be important to be open to more acquisition, he adds.

“I know a lot of people say, ‘Gosh, we have 7,000 acres. We should be done.’  I’m not advocating that we double our acreage or anything, but I think we should stay alert to opportunities that come along to keep building our greenspace, because there are no communities that look back and say, ‘We bought too much park land.’ I’ve never heard of that.”

And what about Scholtz’s future? More parks – but as a park user.

“I kind of pride myself in knowing the parks system pretty well, all the ins and outs of it, but there’s actually a few places I know I haven’t been – off the trails, different places that I don’t have a clear vision of, so there are things I want to do, to poke around in those places.”

Who knows but that he’ll probably have more of those encounters he’s enjoyed for nearly 32 years – a doe and fawns, a coyote, swans, and even a bull snake.

nacproOn June 9, John Scholtz was awarded the 2019 National Association of County Park and Recreation Officials lifetime achievement award at its annual event in Colorado.

John retires from the Ottawa County on Friday, June 14.

One of his many lasting legacy’s was helping to form the Ottawa County Parks Foundation in 2016. To make a donation in his honor, click here.