Sue Black Takes On Arizona Parks

Feb 9, 2015

Sue Black headed Milwaukee County Parks from 2003 until 2012.
Credit S Bence

Wednesday, the former head of Milwaukee County’s park system starts a new job as executive director of Arizona State Parks.

Sue Black had a long and diverse parks career in Wisconsin, which also included stints with the Dane County Parks Department and the cities of Portage and Green Lake.

But Arizona’s parks system is not new to Black. In the mid-1990s, she served as its director of operations. Black returned to Wisconsin in 1997 to head Wisconsin’s State Parks System.

In 2003, she became director of Milwaukee County Parks; a role she held until it abruptly ended in 2012. During her tenure, the parks garnered the coveted National Gold Medal Awards for Excellence in Parks and Recreation Management in 2009. She then went on to a brief stint as owner of the Milwaukee Wave.

Last week, Black took a break from packing her belongings to fill us in on the Arizona public spaces she’ll be shepherding.

“You’ve got vegetation, elevation; the western border is the Colorado River, so you’ve got all the river parks. And there are boat camps, so a lot of people from California bring their boats there. It’s a really interesting place to go camping,” Black says.

She says she’s barely scratching the surface.

Yet, Black says it was a tough decision to leave Wisconsin.

“Terribly hard, absolutely terribly hard. This is home, and I’m very concerned about a lot of a different things that are happening in the community. But I’m only a phone call away. And I’ll be looking at policies and what people are doing,” she says.

"You only get [the parks] for a little bit. And you leave them in a better shape than you found them. And for those people that don't leave them in better shape than you found them, and use them to pay off some debt or what have you, shame on you." - Sue Black

Black won’t go as far as saying what she thinks about the debate around Milwaukee County’s O’Donnell Park. (For months, heated debate surrounded the unkempt green space at the east end of Wisconsin Avenue, overlooking the Milwaukee Art Museum and Lake Michigan beyond.)

“There are so many polarizing issues in town right now…and do I have opinions? Absolutely. I have some very strong opinions about them,” Black adds. “The public knows what I stand for, it just does.”

She looks back at the renaissance of Bradford Beach with pride.

“I was thinking about how long it took me to talk Joe Bartolotta into going down to Northpoint. Now I think he’s happy that he did it and I think the community loves it down there,” Black says.

She says improvement can come without relying on tax dollars.

“But at the same time, you have to respect those partners and you have to take care of them; and really look at it as a partnership. I’m concerned that those relationships might not be as nurtured as they were under a different administration. That’s troublesome to me,” Black says.

She regrets some projects that did not come to life, including putting a bike lane on the Hoan Bridge.

“It would have really been nice to have a bike path to connect the community and people say you can’t have it. But look at how many big cities you can get across the river,” Black says.

Is she a different boss than she would have been 15 years ago?

“I think everybody changes and grows, don’t they?” she muses, but adds, “Don’t you want a coach that drives you to be your best? Do you want a coach (for whom) mediocre is okay? I don’t want that kind of leader. I want to shoot for the stars."

But, Black adds, she likes to have fun along the way. “If you don’t have fun when you’re working in a parks department. I think everybody knows that about me; work hard play hard."