Lady of the wood

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel                           November 20, 2007

Tired of Milwaukee sinking in national rankings? Want to stick your thumb in the eye of one of those upper-tier cities? How about New York?

A new park, Mequon Nature Preserve in Ozaukee County, has taken root - one that, when combined with adjoining Kohl Park in Milwaukee County, will equal the size of Central Park. Add to that all the adjoining parks and green spaces, in both counties, and it's double.

Does it sound crazy but feel good? Jusk ask the Badgers out there high-fiving their champion, Mequon's Mayor Christine Nuernberg. Yeah, a politician, but this one's not upstate wearing an orange jumpsuit and shackles.

The preserve was not some delirious election promise. In 2000, retired executive Richard Paddock looked out the window of his sixth-floor apartment at Alexian Village. His gaze drifted over Kohl Park, across County Line Road to the woodlots and cornfields of Mequon. He saw an imminent future of concrete gray but dreamed of forest green.

So he gave the Greater Milwaukee Foundation half a million dollars for a park and sought help from Mequon's mayor. For Nuernberg, the traffic lights were in sync. She had just stewarded the completion of a household poll that formed a blueprint for Mequon's future, and it called for land protection with $2 million of public funds.

She saw the need for an institution that would be more nimble than the city, her own government, and unflinchingly brought in the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust to buy the land and manage it.

The trust suggested going big, asking for more land than the partnership could buy. "The thought was you can always decrease your goal, but it's hard to increase it once you start," she told me. They went for a square mile, two-thirds the size of Central Park.

Millions more were needed. The money would have to come from private sources, and that drew skepticism. At this point, most politicians would have headed for the door. Not Nuernberg.

"She's the type of person when she gets an idea that she thinks will benefit people in Mequon, she takes the bull by the horns and gets the job done," Ald. Dale Mayr said.

The city needed to put its skin in the game to give her credibility pitching to Moneyville so the Common Council had to approve its funding. She told the members, "If you will do this, I will raise the rest."

The council unanimously approved borrowing $2 million and kicked in another half-million from its parks fund. Nuernberg didn't know it then, but she had just signed on for a second part-time job, without pay.

She then did the unimaginable - for a politician. She and her husband donated $5,000. Politicians are supposed to fill their pockets, not empty them. She sent an appeal to every household, announcing her donation and her commitment to raise the money. Cash poured in, sometimes for amounts as little as $5.

Five years later, $7 million has been raised from corporations, foundations and individuals. Hundreds of volunteers have planted 50,000 trees, the preserve is open and the mayor needs to replace her worn-out sneakers.

She shakes off the credit and pushes it onto others, which makes her achievement all the greater.

There is still more land to acquire and a forest to be restored, and the lady of the wood is not slacking.

Her next idea: Sell trees to offset personal carbon emissions. "You want to drive that SUV," she says, "you give me $500 to plant trees."

She could give politicians a good name.








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