Ariel Foundation park

Large pieces of recycled glass called cullet are a showpiece at Mount Vernon's Ariel-Foundation Park, which was designed to be a recreational asset for the community while paying homage to the site's past as a former glassworks site. 

Editor's Note: This is Part Four in a four-part series about the past, present and future of the of F.E. Myers Pump Company complex and Pump House Ministries. This story examines what a nearby community of a similar size did in response to a similar issue. 

MOUNT VERNON - Mount Vernon’s Ariel-Foundation Park is a source of great pride for the city.

The 250-acre park about a mile from the heart of downtown features walking trails, lakes, islands, a labyrinth, sculptures, reflecting pools, event spaces, a museum and an observation tower.

It’s a popular venue for concerts, picnics and community events. Residents flock to the park to walk their dogs or to go fishing, and bicyclists traveling the Heart of Ohio Trail and the Kokosing Gap Trail often stop to enjoy the scenery.

But what’s most unique about the park is its strong sense of place, which is rooted in the site’s industrial past.

Perhaps equally remarkable is the way the part came to be, through a partnership between the city, a land conservancy group and private donors.

Repurposing an industrial site

The park is built on the former site of a window glass manufacturing plant, Pittsburgh Plate Glass, Works No. 11, and the former site of Goodwin Sand & Gravel Company.

Instead of hiding the site’s industrial features, park designer and volunteer project manager Ted Schnormeier embraced them.

He left standing three brick elevator/stair towers as well as portions of old buildings. He then planted grass around “The Ruins” to create a similar look and feel to cathedral ruins in Europe.

Schnormeier also left the plant’s old smokestack, building a spiral staircase around it to transform it into an observation tower.

He repurposed structural steel from the buildings into sculptures, transformed a warehouse into a large open-air event venue, turned the clockhouse where employees used to clock in and out into a museum, and converted a carpenter shop into a space for parties and rental events.

He also added new features like terraced earthwork mounds and a “River of Glass” filled with crushed glass and chunks of glass called cullet.

The man behind the park

Schnormeier, a retired executive, is known for Schnormeier Gardens, the nine gardens totalling 75-acres that he and his wife developed around their home near Gambier. The Asian-inspired gardens are open to the public once a year, and the open houses consistently draw crowds.

Schnormeier first became involved in what became Ariel-Foundation Park as a member of the Foundation Park Conservancy Board.

The conservancy board is a non-profit that was started at the urging of mayor Richard Mavis in 2009 to help develop Foundation Park.

At that time, Foundation Park was a city park created on the old gravel pit site with funding from the local community foundation and a Clean Ohio grant from the state.

Overcoming obstacles 

Using an $80,000 grant from Ariel Corporation, the conservancy board first hired one of the world’s leading landscape architects to create a master plan for the park.

However, Schnormeier said the plan was ultimately “nothing short of a disaster” because it would have cost more than $30 million to build, plus $6 million in professional fees.

The conservancy abandoned that plan and forged ahead on it’s own.

Meanwhile, the board acquired the former PPG site, which was adjacent to the existing park.

Schnormeier helped negotiate that deal and then stepped up with a conditional offer to manage the project to develop both the PPG site and the existing Foundation Park into a more useful park.

Schnormeier didn't want the park to suffer the same fate he said he has seen other projects fall to -- death by committee. 

“First, I said there will be no committees. I’m in charge of design, construction and fundraising,” Schnormeier said. “Second, I won’t spend any more money than we raise. Third, you can fire me at any time if you don’t like what I’m doing.”

Schnormeier spent the next two years buying up land around the park, raising money from donors and selling unused materials from the site, and then designing and implementing the project. He hired Bob Stovicek, a landscape architect and contractor he had worked with in the past on projects at Schnormeier Gardens.

Schnormeier admits he faced some opposition to his efforts, particularly as he acquired a warehouse and several residential properties that were occupied by tenants.

“I did a lot of evictions. Luckily no one shot me. There was a lot of hostility … Some people thought it was the worst thing ever, and others thought it was wonderful,” Schnormeier said. “I had vision and as it takes time to execute, some people don’t see the vision. But once it was done, some of our worst critics have changed their tune."

Mavis said ultimately the public reaction to the project, for the most part, has been positive.

Schnormeier said he never kept track of the total project cost, but he estimates it was between $8 and $12 million. Everything was done at no cost to the city through donations from private individuals, foundations, businesses and institutions. 

After the park was completed in 2015, the conservancy donated it to the city and Schnormeier resigned from the conservancy board. 

Today the park is owned by the city, but the conservancy maintains the park’s buildings. City staff mow the property, but Mount Vernon is reimbursed by the conservancy, which pays for the maintenance through an endowed fund.

So what can other communities learn from Mount Vernon’s success?

Schnormeier said the key was having the vision to see the potential in an area where others didn’t.

Mavis attributes much of the success to finding the right man for the job.

"Whenever you have a project like this, you hope you have someone like Ted to take the reigns," Mavis said. “The message is you have to realize what you have and then get the right people together to do it."

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