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Rescuers are reviving parks A growing volunteer corps is stepping up to save Olmsted's treasured legacy

In coming weeks, employees of General Motors' Tonawanda Engine Plant will fan out across Riverside Park, just inside the Buffalo city line, to plant bulbs, trim trees, remove graffiti or do whatever else is asked of them to help beautify the park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.

At the opposite end of town, members of South Buffalo Alive will roll up their sleeves to spruce up South Park, Cazenovia Park and the McKinley Parkway traffic circles -- more gems in the "emerald necklace" of Buffalo parks and parkways plotted by America's greatest landscape architect.

Meanwhile, the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy is preparing to issue the results of a survey funded by M&T Bank that counted more than 11,000 trees in the citywide system. "People are starting to believe. They are more willing to accept responsibility," said Corinne Rice, chairwoman of the conservancy board of directors. Indeed, the emergence of spring flowers and buds is just one aspect of the activity that will unfold as warm weather snaps the Olmsted parks and parkways back to life.

Community, business and government partners of the conservancy will muster an ever-expanding corps of volunteers and equipment to help the nonprofit organization move forward on its 20-year plan for parks management and restoration.

When the conservancy took over the parks in 2004, critics "said it wouldn't work because of union issues, because the city and the county would not change," noted Tim Fulton, the park operations manager. "We've worked through all of those things."

Now, Louisville and Rochester, among other places, are considering the Buffalo plan as a guideline for their parks. "Word is getting out," Fulton said.

Arts and cultural groups increasingly have come to rely on high-minded -- and unpaid -- people to make up for declining taxpayer subsidies.. And perhaps nowhere is the impact of volunteerism and broad community support as visible, over so much of the city, as in the ongoing campaign to return Buffalo's far-flung system of interconnecting green spaces to its pristine 19th century beauty and purpose.

> 1,000 volunteers

An estimated 1,000 volunteers, including members of school, scouting, community and church groups as well as families and individuals, provide vital support for its 13-member staff and 100 seasonal workers. Many of the same people contribute money as well as muscle. In January, the organization completed the five-year first phase of a long-term fund-raising campaign with nearly $13 million in hand. It aims to raise a similar amount in the next phase.

The alliance between the 28-year-old organization and its various constituencies has flourished since the 2004 completion of the management and restoration plan, modeled on one that revitalized another sadly neglected Olmsted creation -- New York City's Central Park.

The conservancy assumed management of the Olmsted system under an agreement with Erie County, which earlier had assumed responsibility for all of the city's approximately 180 parks and other public green spaces.

These events have inspired park stakeholders in virtually every neighborhood, conservancy leaders say. More and more citizens are pitching in, leading to more and more improvements in the parks' appearance.

"By and large, each community really values its park," said Deborah Lynn Williams, chairwoman of the conservancy Advisory Council, which has grown to include 38 member groups since it formally organized in 2004. "The agendas may be different, but everyone realizes the parks are something they need -- places that are safe and accessible."

The cost-effectiveness of the conservancy, which runs on a $3 million budget, is inspiring loyalty, too, Fulton said. "People respect what we're doing as a nonprofit," he said. "Our parks now cost less than $10 a year per taxpayer, versus more than $100 in Minneapolis."

For GM, which began pitching in at Riverside Park on Earth Day 2004, the cleanup was an expression of corporate values, said Mary Ann Brown of the Tonawanda plant. "We believe it is important to have a positive relationship with the community -- and that means sweat equity, not just money," she said.

Using mostly their own tools, employees toiled in a freezing, windblown rain to trim low-hanging branches, plant 2,000 bulbs, remove outdated electrical boxes, edge around monuments and make benches for park users.

The gesture drew an enthusiastic reaction from Riverside residents, Brown said. "Before, the trees were hanging so low they couldn't see across the park. Now they can," she said. "I think they're very pleased with what's going on."

United Auto Workers members regularly perform cleanup tasks at Riverside, and the company supports an Olmsted zone gardener assigned to the park, Brown added. This year, GM has been asked to help fix a pavilion and remove graffiti as its Earth Day contribution, she said.

Similar upgrades have been accomplished in Cazenovia Park, where the community organization South Buffalo Alive helped spiff up the 103-year-old shelter house for the conservancy's annual black-tie gala two years ago.

Many guests who had never been to the park in the heart of working-class South Buffalo were astonished by the beautiful setting.

Last year, South Buffalo Alive began selling commemorative bricks for a new walkway next to the shelter house -- an initiative embraced by residents living near the park, who bought up all the available bricks. "The community bordering Cazenovia is very old and strong. People were very emotional about the bricks," said Marge Ryan, the group's president.

Two hundred bricks inscribed with the names of loved ones were sold in the first year, and more will be set when weather permits. Proceeds will be invested in future park improvements.

Ryan's organization also partnered with the conservancy to restore two McKinley Parkway traffic circles that were part of Olmsted's design. State funds for the project were secured in 2003 by then-Assemblyman Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, who the following year was elected to Congress.

> Efforts flow together

The conservancy supplied flowers grown in the Martin Luther King Jr. Park greenhouse and mulch for the circles.

"It all kind of flows together," Ryan said. "Little by little, this area is becoming quite beautiful."

Meanwhile, the conservancy and its partners are gearing up for another season of progress. The agenda includes:

Reconstruction of pathways and curbs in MLK Jr. Park.

Planting of 250 trees in Front Park, with funding from the Peace Bridge Authority. The park's crumbling concourse and pathways also will be restored.

Saving two American elms, in Front and Prospect parks, from Dutch elm disease, which wiped out the city's distinctive elm canopy in the 1960s. Each tree will be treated with fungicide.

Publication of a new map and guide designed by Crowley Webb Associates and funded by the New York State Council on the Arts.

e-mail: tbuckham@buffnews.com

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