You Gotta Have Park: Joseph DiVincenzo And The Greening Of Essex County

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.”

The popular sea-theme spray park at Watsessing Park.

“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.

Cedar Grove Park, on the grounds of the county’s former mental health hospital, now has bocce courts, a playground, walking paths, and a community center.

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.

The county acquired Kip’s Castle – 11 acres of land in Montclair and Verona and a castle — in 2007. Photo: Kips’ Castle Park Conservancy

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.”

Striking a familiar pose: Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo, Jr. at an Essex County park ribbon cutting. This time, it’s at Frank A. Cocchiola Playground in Essex County Yanticaw Park.

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.

Are you a fan of Essex County Parks? Tell us your favorite in comments.

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  1. Essex County parks need more bicycle paths. The Hilltop Reservation’s old paved roads should be redeveloped and expanded for road cyclists.

  2. Ms Pappas,
    You left out a central part of the story: Should we be funding Essex County parks with blood money? You made no mention of the growing movement demanding “Joe D”, Deportation Joe, break his blood money contract with Donald Trump to run an 800 person ICE concentration camp at the Essex County jail in Newark. He now hauls in over $ 3 million a month– $117/day for each immigrant– for running Trump’s concentration camp. How about taxing the rich rather than trafficking in human beings in order to finance county parks and other public services? A serious journalistic piece needs to address these issues. As the Jobs and Equal Rights for All candidate for Essex County Executive I am demanding that Joe D break his ICE contract and that we tax the rich to fund public services. Our campaign would be glad to be interviewed for a followup piece which is clearly in order. John Jay Arena, Jobs and Equal Rights for All candidate for Essex County Executive,

  3. This arrangement apparently started in 2011.

    However, the park improvements have been taking place over the past 16 years. Much of the funding has come through Green Acres and other funds as mentioned in the article. As a former member of the Watsessing Park Conservancy, our group spearheaded a lot of the work done in our own park by partnering with the county and working together to identify priorities and apply for those grants. Say what you will about anything else, but Joe D has done a good job on the parks. They were in bad shape before and no previous executive bothered to do anything about it.

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