Drive around Essex County and sooner, rather than later, you’ll end up at a park. But those parks you see today are a lot different than they used to be.
“Our parks were totally neglected and people in charge were not prioritizing our financial issues, when I started,” says Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo.
A greener Essex County has been taking shape for some time. It’s part of DiVincenzo’s quest to improve the quality of life and spur economic development and property values in the county. His work over his 16-year tenure has earned him the unofficial title of “Park Czar.”
“When I began there was only one park conservancy and 17 parks. Now there are 54 park conservancies and 23 parks,” DiVincenzo says. “Parks played an important role in my life as a child and even now as an adult. Having beautiful parks and open spaces provides an oasis for the community and improves property values.”
The crown jewel of DiVincenzo’s efforts may be Turtle Back Zoo at South Mountain Reservation. The park was neglected, says DiVincenzo, when he came into office. Citing its transformation, DiVincenzo calls Turtle Back the best zoo in the state.
DiVincenzo’s efforts have also put Turtle Back Zoo on the fast track financially. The zoo went from bringing in $660,000 annually to now bringing in $10 million annually, says DiVincenzo, who adds that annual visitors also went up from roughly 200,000 to approximately 900,000.
All these renovations have cost some green, too. DiVincenzo spent about $350 million on the parks over the last 16 years. Money for those improvements stems from the Green Acres Fund, Open Space Trust Fund, Capital Fund, Corporate Fund, and from the park conservancies who are eligible to get funds from the Green Acres.
The new parks that have been installed are Veterans Memorial Park, Kip’s Castle, Cedar Grove Park, River Front Park, Presby Memorial Iris Gardens, and South Mountain Recreation Complex. Additionally, 750,000 acres of land has been added to the parks.
DiVincenzo wanted the county to become more fiscally responsible. He now takes pride in it being one step away from becoming AAA rated in business accreditation.
“Taxes are the third lowest in the state with a 2.05 percent increase yearly,” he noted. “Previous county executives left the county in a deficit of $64 million and now we have a $100 million fund balance.”
Overall, DiVincenzo, who seeks a fifth term as county executive, said his main focus is to seek improvements for county residents that help contribute towards quality of life.
“Improving our Essex County Parks is an ongoing initiative of my administration to ensure that our park facilities are state-of-the-art and meet the needs of the community. I would like to continue to work towards improving the lives of all our residents,” he added.