Story & Photos by Art Petrosemolo
“WE HAVE SOMETHING for everyone,” Karen Livingston of the Monmouth County Parks System (MCPS) says with a smile. And since the MCPS has 38 parks, 16,000 acres, and hundreds of programs that attracted some 5.5 million people in 2011, she is not far from the truth.
Livingston has been with the system for 10 years and started as a volunteer. Today she supervises the volunteer program and serves as the MCPS public information officer.
Even with some16,000 acres available for use, MCPS plans are to grow the system by an additional 3,000 acres in the years ahead as it fills pieces of land adjacent to current parks. MCPS land represents seven percent of Monmouth County – all preserved for recreation.
The first park had humble beginnings. The original 24 acres, which became Shark River Park, was unused land from the Garden State Parkway construction. Shark River had nearly 6,000 visitors in 1961, its first year, and the Board of Freeholders knew they were on to something. Shark River has grown to 964 acres today and is still one of the system’s most popular destinations.
Attendance has grown steadily throughout the park system, with 1 million visitors yearly in 1975 when there were 13 parks, 2.5 million guests in 1989 when there were 24 parks, and 5 million visitors today with 38 parks.
MCPS is a year-round operation, however, most of the programs and use falls in New Jersey’s spring through fall months. The system is headquartered at Thompson Park (Newman Springs Road, Lincroft) with an administration building and a majestic visitors’ center in the rebuilt home of Geraldine and Lewis Thompson on what was called Brookdale Farm. Ms. Thompson donated the property and its 838 acres in 1968, giving the system a boost as it was growing from its then four parks. The original Thompson home was lost in a tragic fire in 2006, but lovingly rebuilt (with a new addition) from original documents and photographs. It re-opened in 2010.
Funding for the system comes from the County Board of Freeholders, gifts, and revenue from programs. In 2010, MCPS accounted for 4percent of the Monmouth County budget or $19 million. It was 58 percent of the MCPS $33 million budget with the remainder coming from program registrations, golf course fees, marina income, parks admission and gifts.
The MCPS runs something for toddlers to seniors – swimming to ceramics, hiking to horseback riding. Its summer camp programs for children, which will be detailed in the special camps directory out in the next several weeks, fill quickly as parents plan summer activities for themselves and their families.
Summer swim lessons for children are one of the system’s most popular offerings and the Dorbrook Recreation Area (Route 537 East, Colts Neck) has two pools for swim lessons for both children and adults.
Other vacation programs for children include sports, crafts, hiking, camping, sailing or even a chance to work on an 1800s Monmouth County farm at Longstreet Farm in Holmdel.
The parks are sites for numerous parties and special events throughout the year and a number of road racing events. The system even runs an urban recreation center in Asbury Park. Special, escorted trips and tours are planed throughout the year to locations including Nantucket during the holiday season, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor or cherry blossom season in Washington, DC.
There are more than a 1,000 MCPS volunteers who donate some 24,000 hours each year to keep the parks responsive to needs of visitors. Some volunteers have been a part of the system for years and have donated thousands of hours in a multitude of tasks. They serve as park docents, do trail maintenance, assist at the riding programs for children, do landscaping or serve as assistants at camps and programs. “We couldn’t do all that we do without the volunteers,” Livingston says. “They are invaluable.”
A Friends of the Parks group, under the supervision of Marie Wojciechowski, provides support and raises funds for programs that keep the system vibrant and otherwise could not be done. They sponsored the publication of the 2011, 50th anniversary book, help with exhibits at multiple locations, purchase livestock for Longstreet Farm, built exhibit panels along historic park trails among others. The group runs an annual fund raising golf outing and solicits gifts of real estate, securities, memorial gifts, and charitable bequests all to help in MCPS growth.
The annual Monmouth County Fair (East Freehold Park Showgrounds), a five day event to be held July 25-29 this year is run by the park system. It is the county’s original agricultural fair and includes displays, rides, food vendors, games and events for the entire family. The fair welcomes thousands of visitors from across the East Coast.
James Truncer is the director of MCPS. Andrew Spears coordinates the recreation programs while Dave Compton is in charge of the facilities overseeing the land, trails and facilities like Seven President’s Park (beach) and the country golf courses and campgrounds. Edward Loud is the chairman of the Board of Recreation Commissioners appointed by the Freeholders to supervise the MCPS development and activities.
MCPS stays in contact with the community through traditional print brochures, a newsletter, and direct mail as well as electronic media including a comprehensive website: http://www.monmouthcountyparks.com, email updates and a facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/MonmouthCountyParkSystem.
But the key to using the parks’ facilities and programs is knowing the what, when, where and that comes from “The Directory” – either print or online – stresses Livingston. “We add new programs each season and many fill to capacity quickly,” she explains, “so seeing the listing and description of programs as soon as we publish is important.”
The spring directory – indexed by age or type of program – will be published March 7, with registration beginning March 14. You can call the MCPS (732-842-4000) and ask to be added to the mailing list for the directory. The camp and swim directory will be published March 14, with registration beginning March 25. All programs are competitively priced and many families enroll their children in multiple programs throughout the summer.
You can visit the Thompson Park visitors’ center weekdays or weekends to pick up a directory or brochures on specific parks and to learn more about MCPS programs.