Park, Rocky Ridge Group Unveil Maple Sugar House

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- Seeking a bit of shelter from the cold and windy final day of April yesterday, guests huddled under the roof of the new Mill Creek Maple Sugar House for a ribbon cutting there. The weather offered “a good metaphor for the conditions last year we were in,” Paul Hagman said, when volunteers worked on the first batch of maple syrup to be tapped from the Charles S. Robinson grove of maple trees at Mill Creek MetroParks.

“Imagine it this rain were snow, and imagine we didn’t have a shelter and imagine we were hauling maple sap back and forth from the woods. That’s what we were working with last year,” Hagman, a volunteer with the Rocky Ridge Neighborhood Association, remarked. “It was a successful pilot project but it made us realize that having a dedicated shelter for the production of maple syrup would increase our production [and] it would be a way for the community to come together on a remarkable project.”

Hagman, joined by his Rocky Ridge neighbors, city officials and representatives of the MetroParks and foundations that contributed to the new structure, said it should be completed in the next couple of weeks. The building is at the James L. Wick Recreation Area, across the road from the Judge Morley Performing Arts Pavilion. 

“This is the perfect collaboration for us. These are the kinds of things that we like to do with the neighbors,” said Linda Kostka, director of development for Mill Creek MetroParks.

“We want to be involved with as many people as we can because the taxpayers fund our operations,” she continued. “We want to make sure we include as many folks as we can in the things that we do.” 

The inaugural batch of Mill Creek Maple Syrup was produced last year, when the Rocky Ridge volunteers used the Morley pavilion sound booth for syrup production. “We had all this equipment set up to shelter us from the snow but it did nothing to stop the cold winter winds and the snowdrifts, so having the shelter is a huge help for the volunteers,” Hagman said. 

The new building, which volunteers used this year, made a difference between “night and day” in terms of efficiency in production, Hagman said. “Last year we were successful but it was a little touch-and-go because we were working out kinks and we had a much further distance to haul the sap,” he remarked. 

The neighborhood association raised more than $41,000 to fund construction of the building and syrup-making equipment. Grants include $15,000 from the Youngstown Foundation; $10,000 from the Frank and Pearl Gelbman Charitable Foundation; $5,000 from the J. Ford Crandall Memorial Foundation; $3,000 from the Kennedy Family Fund; a $1,200 discretionary grant secured by Councilman Mike Ray, D-4; $2,525 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture; and $1,000 from the Home Savings Charitable Foundation.

Hagman, of the firm RBF CoLab, donated $7,200 in engineering and agricultural fees, Masonry Materials Plus provided insulating firebrick for the furnace of the evaporator, a $700 value, and Alex Downie & Sons donated $4,150 in construction management and general contracting services. “It’s a big endeavor to raise that amount and the community really came together,” Hagman said.  

“This is one of the most well-written grant requests we’ve ever got,” remarked Jan Strasfeld, executive director of the Youngstown Foundation. The foundation’s board was particularly impressed with the collaboration among the different entities involved in the project, “and how this community has raised the bar for other communities to take responsibilities to address their own issues with a social enterprise,” she said.

This year’s batch of the Mill Creek syrup goes on sale at 10 a.m. today at the gift shop in Fellows Riverside Gardens. Proceeds will be divided between the Rocky Ridge association and the park district. The syrup will be sold at $18 per 8-ounce bottle and Hagman expects about $6,000 will be raised from the sale of the approximately 350 bottles produced.

Despite the shorter window this year due to the weather – four weeks or so, as opposed to nine weeks last year –the increased efficiency the new building enabled volunteers to produce nearly 30 gallons of syrup; 35 gallons were produced last year. 

Last year’s batch sold out in about a day or so, Hagman noted.

As it did last year, the park district will put its share of the proceeds toward completing the Wick area’s children’s play area. “The first three components will be complete hopefully by Memorial Day, which only leaves us to fund the wet playground portion of it,” Kostka said. “We’re hoping by next summer we’ll have that up and running so that entire project will be complete.” The spray area will cost about $140,000, she said.  

Last year the Rocky Ridge Association used its portion to fund several “community endeavors,” Hagman said, including the playground, youth baseball and the purchase of two iPads donated to the West Branch of the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County.    

Copyright 2014 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.
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