Vern J. Hartenburg was born in 1947 and educated in the Eaton Rapids Public School system in Michigan. He graduated from high school in 1966. He was born and raised on a farm, liked growing things and being around animals and wildlife, so park management seemed a logical course of study to pursue. Later in his career, Hartenburg explained the relationship between his formative years on his father's farm and his role as executive director of Cleveland Metroparks:
It's all in the notion of stewardship. I've always felt that farmers are, first and foremost, stewards of the land. In some cases, farmers have to clear the trees to cultivate the land. And they need to rely on God throughout the season to provide the rain and so forth.
With the park system, you work with a plan and plant trees or cut trees to clear for picnic areas, but in the end, the real product is not up to what I do or what the park managers do. It's up to God and his grace. We are stewards who manage the land.
Working on the farm was not an option because he was the third son and the family farm could not support that many. Besides, he preferred a more people-oriented profession to the more solitary lifestyle of a farmer. Thus, he enrolled at Michigan State University and completed his B.S. degree (1970) and master's work (1971) in Park and Recreation Resources. During these formative years, his potential for leadership was recognized by peers as he was elected both to lead the department's student branch and, more significantly, as secretary of the NRPA student branch.
While a student at Michigan State, Hartenburg held summer internship positions with Michigan State Parks and Milwaukee County Parks Commission. In 1971-72, he was selected as an NRPA intern and spent a year with the Indianapolis Department of Parks and Recreation as a parks maintenance supervisor.
Upon completion of the internship with Indianapolis, Hartenburg was hired as a park and recreation supervisor by New Castle County, Delaware. This was a grassroots management position, but Hartenburg was given considerable flexibility and discretion. He later described the challenge and growth that this position facilitated:
I came in as a park supervisor responsible for 12 full-time maintenance personnel who were pretty crusty and much older than I. I was a 23-year-old who thought I knew everything, and I knew nothing. I tried to implement some new practices which I am sure they thought were pretty corny, but there was a lot of growth from being in that "sink or swim" situation.
Hartenburg's immediate supervisor was Rick Dodge, who subsequently became city manager for St. Petersburg, Florida, while the agency director was Ralph Cryder (Pugsley Medal, 1992) so in his four years there, he benefited from exposure to unusually high caliber mentors. Ralph Cryder was especially influential: "He was a very dynamic, hard driving, 'take no prisoners' kind of boss. As a young parks supervisor, that certainly made an impression on me." It was Cryder who advised him that if he aspired to be a director in the future, then recreation experience was necessary:
I was not a programmer. I came up predominantly through the park management track. When a recreation supervisor position came open with New Castle County which supervised summer day camps, community centers, and swimming pools, I transferred into that position. My salary remained the same; I had to give up my take-home car; and I worked lots of nights and weekends rather than a straight daytime schedule. Everybody around me asked, "What are you doing? Why are you doing this?" Well, within a year an opportunity emerged to be executive director of parks and recreation in Evansville, Indiana, where they were merging the two departments. There is no doubt, I would not have successfully competed for that opportunity if I had not had that one-year experience as a recreation supervisor.
Hartenburg became the first executive director of Evansville in 1976 responsible for merging three separate units into one department with 174 full-time employees. He coordinated staff programs and maintenance for diverse facilities including golf courses, roller skating, and ice-skating arenas, swimming pools, an outdoor music theater, a zoo, and a system of neighborhood community centers. During his tenure at Evanston, he supervised the design, construction, and opening of new capital facilities costing over $10 million. This was a substantial increase in responsibility for him, but his effectiveness became apparent when four years later Evansville received the National Gold Medal award recognizing it as the outstanding park and recreation system of its size in the U.S. At the end of his stay in Evansville, a lead editorial in the city's newspaper observed:
Vern Hartenburg's ability is as apparent in the esteem in which his employees hold him as it is in the way the department has been operated. Under Hartenburg's direction, the department has been recognized nationally for excellence...When Hartenburg's decisions came down they included well considered plans and alternative courses of action... His recent decision to return to comparable work in his home state of Michigan was understandable, but we hate to see him go.
In 1979, he became superintendent of parks and recreation for the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan, staying there until 1984 during which period they received the 1981 National Gold Medal. When he left Ann Arbor, the city's newspaper commented: "He is an accomplished salesman of park projects. He is highly regarded at City Hall for his ability to obtain grants and rally support for the park system."
In 1984, he moved to become superintendent of Hennepin Regional Park District (later renamed Three Rivers Park District) which envelops the city of Minneapolis. This independent park district had over 24,000 acres of parkland at 19 separate sites, and Hartenburg succeeded Clif French (Pugsley Medal 2005) as its superintendent. The Park District had completed its program of major land acquisition. Hartenburg's mandate was to use his experience in marketing, promotion and revenue-generating programs to lead the agency's change in emphasis to facility development.
After four years there, he assumed leadership of Cleveland Metroparks in 1988. The park district's reputation had been sullied by disputes over competing agendas, and it had been embarrassed by the conviction of the previous executive director and other senior officials on felony charges. In a lead editorial the Cleveland's The Plain Dealer described the daunting environment which confronted Hartenburg in his new job:
The Cleveland Metroparks board has taken a large first step toward rehabilitating the system's executive offices by moving quickly – and carefully – to hire a new executive director. Vern J. Hartenburg, who comes to the Metroparks from suburban Minneapolis, faces the dual challenges of restoring public confidence in the honesty of the system's administration while at the same time overseeing its continuing growth and development. That's a large load.
It's impossible, of course, for Greater Clevelanders to get a measure of the man before he has been on the job for a while, let alone before he even gets to town. But those who have watched him work in his Minnesota position say he is an honest, gregarious administrator, energetic and oriented to "active" recreation. Good. He'll need all those attributes, and more, to be successful here.
The Metroparks had fallen victim to administrators who evidenced no compunction about draining off dollars and materials to meet their private ends. Too many Metroparks employees had been abused by martinet bosses. Hartenburg's arrival in September should reverse both these situations.
Hartenburg was selected as executive-director after a thorough national search with a mandate to restore the agency's integrity, the public's trust and the low morale among employees. It required strategic and decisive action. The system's "Emerald Necklace" of parks rings Cleveland and had been one of the nation's great park systems before its recent demise, so Hartenburg was aware of its considerable potential. Within a few years the agency's reputation had been restored as evidenced by strong newspaper editorial support, positive public survey results, and winning the National Gold Medal in 1994, 2001 and again in 2007 recognizing Cleveland Metroparks as the outstanding park and recreation system of its size in the U.S.
He led the agency's employees to a new sense of cooperation and team work with a participative style of management creating a fiat organizational structure without directors or assistant directors so all senior managers had direct access to him. He explained his rationale:
I want other people's opinion and advice before making decisions. Too often in my career, I have thought that I have known the right answer or that my way was the best. What I learn over and over again is that when I ask other opinions, seek other advice, or get good consultation from others, my decisions are better than if I just make them myself.
One of his peers observed: "Vern always exhibits a calm sense of "what is the right thing to do" even though it may not be the popular (AKA political) thing to do. His style is strategic, quiet and more 'behind the scenes' which may often take him out of the spotlight but his influence is always front and center." To ensure the highest standards of integrity in business ethics after the agency's scandals, a professional treasurer, director of human resources, risk manager, and fleet manager were hired. In addition, a licensed, professional engineer was selected as director of the department of planning, design and natural resources. A distinctive characteristic of Hartenburg's operating style is that decisions are research-based and feedback-driven. Cleveland Metroparks is one of the few agencies in this field to have senior staff in market research positions.
In 1995, the electorate overwhelmingly demonstrated its support of Hartenburg's leadership by passing a 1.0 mill replacement levy by 75.4%, the largest margin ever in the park district's 81-year history. It reaffirmed this support 10 years later by again renewing the millage which was projected to generate $760 million in additional tax funds for the district from 2005 to 2014.
Cleveland Metroparks manages over 21,000 acres of parkland (14,000 of which were acquired under the system's first director, Bill Stinchcomb, (Pugsley Medal recipient in 1940) at 16 separate sites. It has an operating budget over $80 million and a workforce of over 500 full-time and 500 part-time employees. The system incorporates seven golf courses; Cleveland Metroparks Zoo; 100 miles of park ways; all purpose trails and bridle trails; swimming, boating and fishing areas; winter sports facilities; and five nature centers.
An early goal was to establish an ethnically diverse workforce and Cleveland Metroparks has become a model for others in accomplishing this. Hartenburg expressed the district's mantra in these terms: "When you represent the rich ethnic and cultural diversity in an area the size of Cuyahoga County, it only makes sense to have a workforce that is as diverse as the communities you serve." Two innovative strategies that have contributed to this success are collaborations with high schools to select students for work readiness experience as interns each year, and offering apprenticeship training, programs of one to three years to low-level employees in the system which equips them to compete effectively for more senior positions. The Plain Dealer commented, "Metroparks serves as a model of diversity."
The list of Hartenburg's specific accomplishments at Cleveland Metroparks is long and impressive. The following list is illustrative:
- Parkland acquisition of over 2,500 acres and improvement projects ranging chronologically from the $30 million Rain Forest project created at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in 1990-92; to the Ohio and Erie Canal Reservation in 1999, the restoration of Mill Creek Falls in 2002, and West Creek Valley and Washington Reservation restorations and improvements in 2004.
- Multiple partnerships with 23 other agencies to provide services/facilities in collaboration with the district.
- Substantial self-supporting revenues which increased from approximately 20% of total revenues when Hartenburg was appointed to 35% today. Zoo self-support increased from 40% to 86%.
- Revenue innovations which included:
- Six "name brand" agreements that generated $650,000 over 5 years.
- Promotion of the districts program on 2.5 million Coca-Cola containers distributed yearly in the Cleveland market.
- Eight concession facilities renovated with $1.7 million of concessionaire funds.
- Aggressive sponsorship and donation efforts that generated $3.5 million in a recent 3 year period from corporations and individuals.
- Ten foundation grants in a three year period totaling $1.8 million.
- Public relations communications that have been recognized for their excellence by the Public Relations Society of America. A recent example was the establishment of "Hear Here!," the nation's first radio tour of a regional park system whereby hidden stations broadcast 5 minutes of information about the history, context and available opportunities at each park site on the AM 1620 band.
Hartenburg's influence has extended beyond Cleveland to a number of national professional organizations in which peers have elected him to leadership positions, including President of the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration (2000) and chair of the Commission for Accreditation of Park and Recreation Agencies (2000; 2001). His long and enthusiastic involvement with professional organizations dating from his student days reflects his perceptions of their value in "getting the opinions and input from others and seeing what others are doing or not doing. I just place a real priority on that." Hartenburg received the 1997 Fellow Award presented by the National Association of County Park and Recreation Officials.
When Hartenburg accepted the leadership of Cleveland Metroparks in 1988, it had lost the public’s trust, employee morale was low, and its future looked bleak. After two decades at the helm, the district is once again recognized as one of the outstanding local/regional park and recreation systems in the nation, characterized by strong public support, expansion, and creative, effective management. In 2005, The Plain Dealer noted, "Recreation and open spaces are integral to everybody's quality of life, so it is important that parks be under the best possible stewardship. By any means, that would be Metroparks." Today, after two decades of Hartenburg's transformative leadership, if Clevelanders are asked what they are most proud of about their city, the number one answer is likely to be the orchestra and the number two response will likely be Cleveland Metroparks.