Photos by Adam Ryan Morris
The parking lot is empty.
“You’ll see my car,” she said prior to the meeting.
A couple minutes late, I roll into the lot, thinking I’ve missed her. She’ll have been early, I know. She always is.
Then I see it: A sporty white Kia moving in from a side street, following me to a spot. Of course she’s here, lurking off to the side, and of course she’s on her phone, immersed in conversation. Despite her recent unemployment, she’s working longer hours and more intently than many folks with full-time jobs.
As our cars meet side by side, I spot the red iPhone case held up to her ear. “Keep Calm and Carry On,” it reads.
With a quick motion of her hand, she waves me into the Kia, where I take a seat and look around. This is a really nice Kia, I think, as the call is wrapping up. A really nice Kia.
“Sue,” I say, “I like your car.”
“It’s nice, right? I just don’t like spending a lot of money on things. Especially taxpayer dollars.”
As Milwaukee County’s parks director, she made more than enough to afford a Mercedes or a Lexus, but that’s Sue Black. Frugal. Purposeful. Direct. And efficient. Within moments, she hands me a map and an itinerary, turns on my seat warmer, and off we go.
“Obviously, we’re at The Domes,” she says, setting off on her Greatest Hits Tour, a drive through the county to showcase some of her finest achievements over nine years as director. With 154 parks and parkways spread over more than 15,000 acres, Milwaukee’s “emerald necklace” is massive. And with a stagnant budget – not to mention more than $200 million in deferred maintenance – it took out-of-the-box thinking for Black to make her mark.
|See Sue Black in the parks for which she fought so hard.
“What you’re going to see is every inch, there’s something that’s either in the works, in my brain or completed,” she says.
When Black’s tenure as parks director is discussed, two projects rise to the top: Bradford Beach and the Mitchell Park Conservatory, aka The Domes. She oversaw the revitalization of both, relying upon donations from philanthropists Michael Cudahy and Chris Abele, and an anonymous source, to renew The Domes.
“We completely redid this front entrance,” Black says, gesturing toward the building that sits nestled between domes. “It used to be sunken-in gardens with stagnant water. The sprayer things, the fountains, were in disrepair.” Now, there are 18 fountains. “I call it my little Bellagio.”
Plus, the county installed new lighting for the vaulted glass and metal structures to drench them in color. “The whole thing was to reinvent The Domes at night,” she says.
On the evening they reopened in November 2008, the line for admission wrapped around the nearest street corner. And tomorrow, Black says, “there should be a line out front.”
“Tomorrow” – Nov. 1, the opening of this season of Music Under Glass – will find the former parks director sharing a dome with her former employer, County Executive Chris Abele, who first came to know Black during his philanthropy days. Prior to his election in 2011, Abele served as CEO of his father’s Argosy Foundation, founded a hospital services business and prided himself on the title of philanthropist, donating heavily to arts, parks and the environment.
As such, the East Coast transplant became fast friends with Black, the kind of friends who share a bottle of wine and hang out. She listed him as a reference on her resume, and when he decided to run for county executive, she stayed out of the race, though many in town were urging her to launch a campaign.
Abele won decisively with 61 percent of the vote, but hopes of sunnier relations between his office and the Milwaukee County Board slowly eroded. County government, it seems, is descending again into its old habits of bickering, an image not helped by what happened on Aug. 16, 2012, when the county executive and Black sat down for a routine meeting at the county courthouse.
Black launched into updates on key projects, but Abele wasn’t there to talk parks. Not on that day. He was there to fire her.
And just like that, the ubiquitous Sue Black no longer worked for Milwaukee County. The dismissal was called abrupt, short-sighted and poorly handled, opinions fueled, in part, by Abele’s refusal to explain Black’s dismissal.
“I don’t owe you gossip,” Abele told reporters after the firing, and he never budged.
He maintained in an interview in November, a few days after the Music Under Glass opening, that he did what he believes is best for the county. “I’ll stand by, year after year, the results,” he said. “That’s what people can and should hold me accountable for.”
If you count awards as results, county government has succeeded wildly at managing its park system in recent years. Since 2003, the year of Black’s hiring, the department has won no fewer than 79 accolades, according to its website, and probably a lot more: Awards won by Black individually aren’t listed, though others attributed to individuals are. There are prizes for design (such as a $10,000 “Intelligent Use of Water Award” for Boerner Botanical Gardens) and plaudits for pools (including a 2011 award from the Wisconsin Park and Recreation Association for the Tosa Pool at Hoyt Park). Most notably, in 2009, the department took home the National Gold Medal Award for Excellence from the National Recreation and Park Association, a competition for which Black now serves as a judge.
“You don’t get that gold medal easily,” says Fran Mainella, former director of the National Park Service and a visiting scholar at Clemson University. Think of it as winning the Oscar for Best Picture, if you’re someone who grew up dreaming of recycled-rubber bike paths.
“Sue is known nationally,” Mainella says.
When a national parks conference called a meeting of the top 25 directors in the nation, Black was invited. “She sat between Los Angeles and New York, two of the largest recreational parks in the world, and she held her own,” says Jon Kirk Mukri, the head of Los Angeles’ parks department. “She’s strong, she’s knowledgeable, she’s great to work with as a team. She was very well-respected.”
Perhaps no other person has had as much of an impact on Wisconsin’s parks in recent history. Something of a maverick, she sought unorthodox funding sources and partnerships, and lobbied hard for parks and playgrounds. Hands-on and vocal, she made herself the face of the department and one of the city’s top leaders, and ruffled a few feathers along the way. She’s been called tough to work for, abrasive in standing up for the county parks system and brash in finding new ways to lock down funding – ways that might not be quite politically correct.
The criticism comes with the territory, Black says, when you make yourself the face of an organization. The face of a movement.
|Cristina Daglas talks about the Sue Black saga on WUWM’s “Lake Effect” Dec. 17 at 10 a.m.
“I think it’s a responsibility when you don’t have a marketing budget, when you’re under public attack all the time for funding, and you want to show the benefit of a healthy parks system to the economy, to the kids, to all of it,” she says. “Somebody’s got to step forward and be that face, be that voice.”
That was Sue, born for a role that carries “some risks,” she says, “as we’ve seen here.”