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 […]
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.
|See Sue Black in the parks for which she fought so hard.|
“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.
“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.
|Cristina Daglas talks about the Sue Black saga on WUWM’s “Lake Effect” Dec. 17 at 10 a.m.|
The criticism comes with the territory, Black says, when you make yourself the face of an organization. The face of a movement.
“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.”
Sue Black taking a break from training during her Arizona days.
Behind The Domes, old stadium lights jut up in the distance, where they loom over a rundown county baseball field. They’re equipped with archaic, energy-sucking technology, so the county would never light them for Little League play, but they remain, a sign of an area that used to be full of life.
To the east, there are rumblings of newness, not far from these aging sentinels – sounds of heavy machinery and a busy construction project. As we hone in, they grow louder.
“Usually Sue would just drive up,” she says, “but I’m not the parks director anymore. I have to respect my boundaries.”
So we park and walk the rest of the way, up to the gravel site of something “so frickin’ cool,” she insists.
Soon, this space at Mitchell Park will become the Journey House Football Field, filled with turf from a Green Bay Packers practice field. Donated by the Packers, the emblematic “G” will mark the center of the field, and the Packers moniker will cover the end zones.
“It’s the first time ever that the NFL has given a used field,” Black says.
In October, Journey House broke ground on the project, and the organization invited Black to attend. Its leaders reserved a special seat for the former parks director, and she held a shovel during the ceremonial dig. “I’m not just going to pop in places,” Black says, “but if somebody invites me and they want me to go … it’s my city, too. I worked on it.”
To Black, everything starts with an idea, or, as she calls it, an acorn. There’s one in the county parks logo, along with an oak leaf, and they both have meaning to her. “The acorn is the first meeting, when we had the idea,” she says. “And then, obviously, the oak leaf is when it comes to fruition.”
The Journey House field hasn’t reached oak leaf status yet, but “that acorn is now this big,” Black says, soon after the groundbreaking ceremony, using her hands to demonstrate how the seed has grown. “To see the mayor and all of the business community and all the philanthropic people, and to know that you worked on that for a long time – that’s what I’m talking about with the acorns. It was very gratifying to be there.”
It’s been less than gratifying to leave other projects, other acorns, behind as they’re just taking root. “That’s one of my biggest frustrations,” she says. “Not being able to finish that list.”
Black jokes that she has self-diagnosed attention deficit disorder, though there might be something to her quip. A conversation with the 51-year-old races from topic to topic, some thoughts finished, many more not. She’ll bounce through ideas, from small to big and from one side of town to the next. She’s always thought in grandiose terms, and she’s always known that parks were her calling.
She majored in recreation resources management at UW-Madison and later earned a master’s degree in education from the University of Phoenix. In the 1980s, she served as director of the Green Lake and Portage parks departments, eventually moving on to the Dane County parks department in 1991. After two years there, she headed west to Arizona, where she landed her first major honor in 1996, an award of excellence for her work as head of the Arizona State Parks. But in 1997, she returned home to Wisconsin to lead this state’s parks department under Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson.
“She exuded a passion that you only wish that people that ran departments or interests would have,” says Thompson, who’s still friends with Black. “She loved the park system, she loved what she was doing, and she loved having the opportunity to be director of it.”
Over six years, she helped establish three new state parks and shepherded the state’s largest-ever trail acquisition. Under Thompson’s tenure, she thrived, but Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle demoted her not long after taking office, effectively pushing her out the door. She eventually landed in Milwaukee County, serving under then-County Executive Scott Walker, who recruited her to oversee the county’s massive park system. She turned down his first offer but agreed to take the parks director post in 2003, a job she used to create the county’s first trail manager position and promote connectivity in the “emerald necklace.”
A major endeavor she’d hoped to complete in her nine years in Milwaukee County would have linked Milwaukee’s Oak Leaf Trail with Ozaukee and even Door counties. “It’s like building a highway system,” she says of the project that would have spent $4 million on land acquisition and another $4 million on development. But she never finished.
Currently, the popular Oak Leaf Trail cuts through Estabrook Park on the city’s Northeast Side, also home to the county’s new beer garden. Standing behind where the taps would flow in warmer weather, Black looks down toward the trail, with the sound of the Milwaukee River rushing in the background.
“Before, no one was here. This place was tagged,” she says, referring to past graffiti. “We redid this whole boardwalk. It’s all part of the trail system. Isn’t it beautiful?”
Beautiful it is. A stunning backdrop for a reimagined Milwaukee tradition, plus revenue from Estabrook (reported at approximately $65,000 in 2012) will go toward park maintenance. Two more gardens in the same mold are planned for other county parks, with the dual goals of attracting new visitors and generating a little revenue.
“She’s always coming up with extraordinarily creative ideas to be able to find solutions to problems,” says developer Barry Mandel.
Dan Cody – president of The Park People of Milwaukee, an umbrella organization for many of the “friends” groups Black helped create – writes and speaks tirelessly about the financial issues facing the county parks department. The friends organizations (now numbering 65, according to Cody) have lessened some of the fiscal strain by forging new relationships and attracting donations. More visibly, Black was able to champion private-public partnerships, he says, to augment county operations.
“Our parks are basically operating at the same budget as [they were] 30 years ago,” he says. “The budget has not increased. There’s no increase in money, and there’s just as much work to do. You have to go out and chase down those other sources of revenue.”
For potential corporate donors such as Kohl’s, Johnson Controls, Miller Coors, Harley-Davidson and U.S. Bank, Cody says, you have to make a strong pitch. You have to tell them why they should help out the parks, as all of those companies have done in some capacity.
“We’ve tried to provide money to Sue via our foundation to help her maintain and improve the parks, which have clearly had some restricted financing,” says Bill Bertha, Wisconsin president for U.S. Bank. “We’re trying to help fund some of that gap.”
Sue Black has always been a parks advocate.
One of three parks in Milwaukee designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Washington Park on the West Side has undergone a complete revamp in recent years. As Black drives in, pointing to parts of the park on her GPS, she first draws attention to a new “play trail,” a sprawling network of play stations designed to engage children cognitively as well as physically.
It’s the first one in the state. Officials cut the ribbon soon after she was let go, much to her disappointment.
There’s a honeycomb, a grouping of play trees, a cluster of toy mushrooms. “I’ve always wanted more destination playgrounds,” she says. “The kids play on the stuff all day long in school. They’re bored to death of that same platform and that same silly slide.
“See!” she squeals, her voice climbing in delight, her hand motioning toward a group of children at the tree station. “They’re playing on it!”
Across from the trail sits a splash pad, a playground with water jets and a play motorcycle that’s painted orange and black. “Harley-Davidson has really helped adopt this park,” she says. “So I thought, I’ve got to find a motorcycle.”
We drive past the Urban Ecology Center, which Black describes in great detail, and weave our way toward the park’s band shell. “This drives me crazy. Frickin’ crazy,” she says, rolling past a battered sign. “If there’s any sign that needs to be redone, just take it down. Pull it out!”
Her frustration passes as the park’s band shell, revitalized in large part due to Harley-Davidson’s sponsorship, comes into view. “The question was, ‘Are we going to rip this thing down?’” she says. “And once again, I was like, ‘Not on my watch.’”
She continues like this for four hours, effortlessly traversing the county, talking without hesitation like a proud mother. There’s the pool in Hoyt Park, a tour of the King Community Center, Bradford Beach and a jaunt down to South Shore and Grant parks, which she says could be Bradford South.
There’s also a pit stop at Lake Park to try out some playground equipment and the surface it’s built on. She remembers the unveiling of the playground, when she asked the kids huddled around one simple question:
“Do you like it?”
“Yes!” they screamed.
She sliced through the ribbon and yelled, “Go play!”
Now, on this overcast afternoon, she’s swinging around on the equipment while talking on the phone with Mandel. They’re discussing plans for later in the night and joking about Halloween costumes.
As the tour concludes and we head back to The Domes, she rattles off places we couldn’t see due to time constraints – places like the proposed urban campground at Bender, and the sports complex at Crystal Ridge, home to a public-private partnership that was floated as one of the reasons for her dismissal.
In 2011, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel made Black the offer of a lifetime: Run the Chicago Parks Department. With a budget of almost half a billion dollars and a salary of $198,000 (versus the $125,000 she was then making in Milwaukee), it was an appealing proposition.
But after much deliberation, including a three-hour conversation with Mandel, Cudahy and others, she turned it down. “I didn’t want my legacy to be that I up and left for something bigger and better,” Black says. “You look at a lot of pro athletes, and you say, ‘Oh look, they got what they wanted out of Milwaukee, and then they left.’ I didn’t want to be that person to use Milwaukee as my stepping stone.”
For sticking around, Black got a salary bump, up to $140,000, and she dove right back into the fray. When Emanuel’s offer came, she had been particularly busy, partly due to her chairmanship of the Long-Range Lakefront Planning Committee, a 13-person council created to survey the future of O’Donnell Park and the Downtown Transit Center, among other issues. Given until December 2012 to finish a comprehensive report, the panel finished early. Way early. By August 2011, a proposal was on the table, with the backing of a wide coalition.
“She got all 13 of those members to sign off on it, which is a really stellar accomplishment,” says Cudahy, one of the 13.
Soon, however, and without much attention, Black’s role would shift. Abele removed her as committee chair sometime in the fall of 2011, a move that struck Cudahy as “rather odd,” he says. Black was undaunted and fulfilled her other responsibilities without worry.
In April 2012, Abele won re-election.
A month later, Black experienced a tough-to-pinpoint feeling of unease. During a routine meeting, she brought it up.
“Is everything cool between the two of us?” she asked Abele. “Are we good?”
“He said yes,” Black remembers. “I went home and wrote on a little piece of paper, I always take notes, ‘Talked to Chris today, and everything is cool.’”
On May 24, following Abele’s recommendation, the County Board confirmed Black’s nomination as parks director. She was one of the first county officials to be reappointed.
Less than three months later, with the County Board on recess, Black would lose her job.
The day was Aug. 16, 2012, and the occasion was a weekly meeting with Abele at the courthouse.
“I just sat down,” Black says two months later over lunch at an empty Third Ward restaurant. “There’s usually people in the meeting.” This time, the county executive and his parks director were joined by a woman Black didn’t recognize but assumed was just another staffer listening in, an Abele aide. Not a cause for concern.
“You only have an hour, so you have to get to it,” Black says. “I’m showing him, ‘This is the project. This is what we’re doing.’ And he basically said, ‘We’re letting you go.’ And in my mind, I was like, ‘Where?’
“He said, ‘No, we’re relieving you of your duties as parks director.’ I was obviously shocked. Shocked.”
Black said her goodbyes and left. The unknown woman, it turned out, was a human resources representative.
“They had it all planned out,” Black says, “and I didn’t see it coming.”
Neither did the masses. News of Black’s firing spread like wildfire. Cody may have been the first to tweet the news, writing: “I’ve just been informed by the [Milwaukee] County Exec’s office that parks director Sue Black is no longer director. National search soon.”
Retweets and responses erupted. News outlets jumped on the story, and rumors multiplied as to why Abele would dump Black, whom most observers saw as a star department head.
Was it something specific, maybe an issue with the Crystal Ridge ski hill lease, which came to fruition immediately before her termination? Black negotiated a deal with a Franklin developer to build a $3 million sports complex on the county site, and the details reportedly incensed Abele. Or was the cause something more nebulous, such as communication issues, or a friendship gone sour?
An answer from Abele wasn’t forthcoming. He told reporters, “I don’t owe you gossip,” and so the gossip festered.
When Black drove back to the parks office in Wauwatosa to collect her belongings, she rode with Guy Smith, the department’s chief of operations and a longtime colleague. He was at the courthouse when she was fired. “I think he was just as much in shock,” Black says. “I’ve kind of had him under my wing, watching his career and helping him with it for years.”
They arrived to quite the scene.
“I pulled my car around, and there was a truck in front and a couple of sheriff squad cars. And somebody came downstairs, and they said, ‘You can’t go back in there.’”
“Why?” Black asked.
“Well, we’re going to box up all your stuff, and we’re going to bring it to you.”
“Well, how do you know what I have – and what’s mine, and what’s not?” she protested, but her appeals got her nowhere. Later that day, the red couch from her office and boxes of other belongings arrived at her home in Wauwatosa, all delivered by county workers.
“They dropped it off and put it in the garage,” she says. Furniture. Random stuff. Framed awards, including some that were cracked.
As confusion built in the days and weeks after her firing, the outpouring of support from friends, colleagues and even strangers intensified. The following weekend was Irish Fest, so 3rd District County Supervisor Gerry Broderick, chair of the parks committee, convinced Black to join him and his wife at the festivities. “It’s a very interesting experience to be out in public with her, and particularly in the wake of what occurred,” he says. “People were flocking around her. We were trying to be kind of unassuming, and that’s hard to do when you’re with Sue.”
A bartender chimed in, as Broderick remembers, offering a free beer.
“Lady, you got a raw deal,” he said. “Let me buy you one.”
As the days wore on, routine errands turned into condolence-filled meet and greets, and a meal with relatives at The Original Pancake House in Brookfield took a similar turn.
“I’m sitting there two or three weeks later, and there had to be 10 people that came up to the table while we were eating,” Black says. “They’d say … what happened was wrong, and I’d say, ‘Thank you.’ Well, I look over after, like, the fourth person, and my niece is tearing up, my sister’s crying. … You can’t look for friends on your deathbed, you know?”
But Abele says there’s a tendency to “overly correlate” the face of an organization with its “success or failure.”
“This is sort of a Milwaukee thing,” he says. “When Nancy Zimpher left as the chancellor of UWM, there was quite a bit of very public hemming, and [people saying], ‘Gosh, we lost this great person, and we’re never going to do well again.’ And then we got Carlos Santiago, who raised about 10 times as much money. Then Carlos left, and we do that Milwaukee thing. And then we get Mike Lovell, who is fantastic.”
The analogy continues. Abele mentions Marquette University basketball coach Tom Crean and successor Buzz Williams; Milwaukee Symphony Music Director Andreas Delfs and current director Edo de Waart. More instances of Milwaukee grieving the loss of a leader, only to find a replacement who receives equal – or even greater – adoration.
As for Sue Black, Abele hasn’t yet named a replacement, other than an interim director, Jim Keegan, the parks department’s former chief of planning and development. No hints have yet emerged as to who could become a more permanent successor.
Cudahy doesn’t buy Abele’s thinking.
“We need more people like Sue in this community,” he says. “I was really heartbroken that she was told to go on her way. I think the parks will suffer. I don’t care who runs it. I think the community will suffer from the loss.”
Meanwhile, the situation is continuing to sow discord among county officials, including longtime 11th District County Supervisor Mark Borkowski. “I think this county has gotten cheated,” he says, “and I think she has gotten a bum rap. I’m not going to say everything was lovey-dovey and perfect. But she was very strong-willed, and she had a vision. Ninety percent of the time, it was a good partnership.”
Former Lt. Gov. Margaret Farrow, who’s known Black since the late ’90s, describes a similar reputation the parks chief earned during her time at the state level. “Did she always push a little outside the envelope and do new things? She sure did,” Farrow says. “Did she ruffle some feathers with that? Perhaps.”
But Farrow wasn’t able to recall any examples. Nor could former Gov. Thompson.
“You usually hear rumblings if someone is heavy-handed or dictatorial or hard to work for,” Thompson says. “Governors have a tremendous ability to pick things up. I never received anything like that.”
As for the demotion under Gov. Doyle? Politics, Thompson alleges. “He wanted his people in positions of power.”
In Abele’s case, such a succinct explanation is hard to nail down.
“I called upstairs and asked if Sue Black did anything illegal, and they said, ‘No, she didn’t,’” Borkowski says. “And as long as I know she didn’t do anything illegal, then gee whiz.”
For many, signs point to a clash of egos.
“I think this is where Chris had a problem,” Borkowski continues. “She was the face of the county.”
Two months after Black’s ousting, Abele fired Frank Busalacchi, the county’s transportation director, again offering little in the way of an explanation.
“I think the jury is out on the leadership and management style of Chris Abele,” Borkowski says. “One has to wonder, who’s next?”
Abele is struck by the reaction. He’s been told he’s getting a reputation for personnel changes, he says. “And I guess the context that I’d always respond with is this organization has 4,400 active employees, and while I realize it’s been a long time without too much change, a couple of personnel changes in an organization is not unusual.
“Stay tuned,” he continues. “There will be more.”
When pressed for specifics, he declines. “That’s not the kind of thing I usually announce.”
What Abele has announced are new plans for the county’s parks, including a new focus on those in the inner city, among other initiatives. The art of Milwaukee park management is carrying on without Black, who’s been publicly absent from local politics since her dismissal – except, that is, for a brief moment on Sept. 27, when she received a wistful salute from the County Board. The proclamation signed by Chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic and engraved onto a pair of heavy wooden plaques speaks of “Sue’s legacy of innovation and accomplishment” and credits her with new bridges, dog parks, beer gardens, the expansion of trails for hiking and biking, and the overhauls of Bradford Beach and The Domes.
Although riddled with grammatical errors, the statement finishes rather poetically, thanking her for the accomplishments, and for memories that have “made the Milwaukee County Parks System truly an ‘Emerald Necklace’ now perhaps missing it’s reliable clasp.”
Bullet point No. 2 on the Sue Black Greatest Hits Tour itinerary reads “County Grounds.” We’re about 30 minutes in, driving on Watertown Plank Road in Wauwatosa. As we near our destination, her narration slows to a stop, and she announces a change in the itinerary.
We’re not driving up to and past the Parks Administration Building.
“I was going to take you,” she says, “but I can’t do that right now.”
Looking off to her right toward the building, it’s as if she’s reliving the day-to-day routine that produced many of the accomplishments we were driving around to see. “That’s where I used to park. That’s where my office was. … I feel like I’m going to puke.”
Black still lives in Wauwatosa, not far from the parks office, an arrangement that was once convenient. But not anymore.
She’s at a crossroads, she says. Sell the house or keep the house? Leave or stay?
“Do I just say the heck with Milwaukee because one person did me wrong?” she says at that empty Third Ward restaurant. “What people don’t understand is that when you’re a parks director, you’re going into a very finite field. There are 50 state park systems and 25 urban systems. Of course you could go to the national parks or into middle management, but as far as being the head of it, there are 75 or 100 jobs.”
A number of potential employers have already approached Black with offers, including five she was mulling over in late November. Some were local, and some were not. She wouldn’t say what they were, but noted that they were “all over the board.” Maybe even political. After all, her name has come up before as a potential candidate for county office, and since Abele fired her, some of her most ardent supporters have said she should run for his job.
But 2016 is a long way away.
“There are many people who have talked about my political aspiration,” she says.
“So is that even in the cards?”
“I don’t know.”
“County executive or otherwise?”
“I don’t know. Life has a strange way of working everything out.”