During this milestone 30th year for Forest Park Forever, we recently gathered three organizational leaders — Sue Clancy, Jim Mann and Lesley Hoffarth — to reflect on our scrappy beginnings, our remarkable growth and how this current capital campaign is advancing our mission in exciting ways. Before the interview began, the three spoke gratefully of the work of former Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl and then-Director of Parks, Recreation and Forestry Nancy Rice, whose leadership and foresight established Forest Park Forever in 1986, as well as the organization’s first two Executive Directors, Mary Stolar and Evelyn Newman. 

Sue Clancy, Executive Director, 1993 – 1997 (current Board of Directors member)

Sue Clancy: During my time as Executive Director, our office was in this very spot of our interview here in the Trolley Room in the Visitor Center. My desk was right there [points]. I sat at the desk, and I had to put an umbrella up because the roof leaked.

The organization was very small and very grass-roots, with a huge three-pronged mission: to make Forest Park a premier park, in partnership with the City, and with broad-based citizen support. We had no money, no credibility. And we also had no consensus about what we should be doing.

Then Mayor Freeman Bosley, who had just come into office, took on Forest Park as the forefront of his administration. He convened a three-day conference in 1993. The group was to look at the 1983 plan the City had developed for the Park and the 1993 plan that my predecessor, Evelyn Newman, had developed, which was really a landscaping plan. The idea was in three days, we would compare the two plans, have discussions, and then at the end of those three days, we’d have a Master Plan.

It became very apparent that this project would take much longer. We developed a two-pronged process: a 60-member Master Planning committee, representing every constituency you could think of, then a 17-member Executive Committee comprised of City employees, institutions designated and others. I was the private partner. It was very gratifying to be at the table. John Hoal was hired as the over-all consultant — he is brilliant. Gary Bess was the Parks Director, and he and Katherine Nelson co-chaired. We met two days a week for eight hours at the Cabanne House, and we conducted public meetings all over the community.

It ended up being a two-year conversation. The goal was to give a voice to everyone who wanted to talk about the Park and then condense that, then work back and forth and back and forth, and at the end of the two years, have a vision of the Park that was based on every voice who ever wanted to have a voice. It was arduous. The Master Plan was passed by the Board of Alderman in December of 1995.

It was not hard to convince people that Forest Park needed fixing — there was a regional consensus about that. The difficult sale was that we, Forest Park Forever, were capable of doing our part. We had no track record yet. I think the most we had ever raised was $500,000. That was a huge effort; I don’t know how we did it, but we did.

We launched the Restoring the Glory capital campaign with the City — pledging to raise $44 million each. I knew we needed a lead gift. The morning we announced the Master Plan, Mayor Bosley had a press conference at The Living World at the Zoo. I knew Monsanto leadership would be there, and I still hadn’t heard from them about our gift request. I called my contact that morning and said I needed to know. He said Monsanto executive Bob Shapiro’s wife just went into early labor, and he’s in the labor room. He asked if I wanted him to go into the labor room and ask, and I said yes! We ended up getting the $2 million. So I ran over to The Living World and added a line in Freeman’s speech that we had the $2 million toward the Park’s campaign.

Those were very heady days. Jim, thank God you walked in the door. I had done all I could do. The organization needed to move another step and it needed someone with large institutional experience and different sets of contacts and relationships with major donors. When the head hunter called and said, “Jim Mann is interested — will you talk to him?”, I said “Yes, yes.”

Jim Mann, Executive Director, 1997 – 2006(current Board of Directors member)

Jim Mann: I had been at the St. Louis Symphony for 12 or 13 years. I decided I was ready to do something else. I wanted to have a different kind of experience. A search firm called about the same time and suggested that I come and meet Sue.

I started in the role in late 1997. The Restoring the Glory campaign had raised about $14 million by then. Sue had brought in some major gifts, so there was a tone set on level, which was very helpful.

I found that people wanted to give to the campaign, but they wanted to know a couple of things: where their money would be held — is it going into general revenue? How would the projects get done? What role did the private sector have and did they have a seat at the table? Was the design going to be at a level that matched the level of their gift? If you could answer those questions, which we could due to the Master Plan, then many people wanted to give.

At that point, Forest Park Forever had a seat at the table in terms of reviewing capital project designs, with the City managing all the construction; that is how it was anticipated. We had the ability to inspect all of the projects before we released money. The City was going to pay the bills, and we would pay them back. We got at such an accelerated pace because of the planned 2004 celebration that the City, understandably, wasn’t able to keep up with it.

We finally said, This isn’t really making a lot of sense. We’ve got a deal that we can be at the table — why doesn’t Forest Park Forever take on some of the design and construction and then we can do projects simultaneously? We went back to the Board of Aldermen. Parks Director Gary Bess was very supportive of that, as was the board of Public Service.

Looking back, this all makes sense: Forest Park Forever’s first leader, Mary Stolar, was a public employee; and then the next leader, Evelyn Newman, was full-time for Forest Park Forever, but an unpaid volunteer; then Sue becomes the first full-time, paid Forest Park Forever Executive Director who is able to contribute to the Master Plan process… It was a natural evolution.

At this time, Forest Park was very much under construction. Because there were piles of dirt everywhere, it was great for fundraising and building a friends base. We’d go to Boeing Aviation Field or the Jewel Box or the Boathouse and there was so much construction activity and exciting openings. I can remember the Grand Basin, completely drained and people in gators driving around and laying pipe.

Jim Mann: As the Restoring the Glory campaign came closer to completion in the early 2000s, a lot of people — including members of our Board — assumed that we would go out of business because, in a way, we were “done.” In looking at other urban parks and other public/private partnerships, not only was that unrealistic on the maintenance side, but we would have also been missing an opportunity to continue serving the community.

When I brought this up, you would have thought I wanted to close Highway 40! You know, people were asking, “What do you mean — we’re rebuilding the Park, then the city can take care of it.” We proposed running this Visitor and Education Center and actually having a home here — we had moved out of the Park during the reconstruction of this building. We also thought, let’s do a friends campaign while we’re still raising this campaign money, because there is so much momentum. Then Anheuser-Bush stepped forward and said, We don’t need our name on anything else, but we will give you $3 million, but we want it to go into an endowment. So that seeded the endowment.

Sue Clancy: That was critical, because we hadn’t been able to create an endowment — we couldn’t think that far ahead. But you helped us all start thinking more long-term.

Jim Mann: We also started a planned giving program, which brought in some six- and seven-figure gifts unexpectedly. Then it was Jack Taylor’s birthday, and I sent him a note and invited him to the Boathouse. I wasn’t going to ask him for anything. Jo Ann, his daughter, came along. We had started doing some studies about what it was going to cost to care for Forest Park, and he asked some great questions. At the end of lunch, he said he’d decided to give Forest Park Forever $5 million to our endowment. That really encouraged people that our organization could receive these two unsolicited endowment gifts.

Lesley Hoffarth: Jim, it was you planting those seeds about the organization needing to figure out how we would help take care of this park going forward.

Jim Mann: In some of those early days, I would literally do planting — I would be out in the Park watering the grounds! On a hot weekend, people might see me and shout as they drove by, “Jim, what are you doing?!” I’d say, “I’m it, you know.” Then we hired a firm to do some of that.

The other factor that we really need to mention, beyond the donors, is the Board members and the Board chairs — they had our backs. There were five chairs when I was here, and each one said, “I’m behind you, let’s figure this out.” They would go with you to the City to cajole and explain why a particular plan was good. They would ask their friends and bring other Board members on.

Jim Mann: People were continually being creative about how our Restoring the Glory campaign could be successful. One volunteer came up with the idea of Pennies for the Park. My reaction at first was, “Have you lost your mind?! We’ve got to raise $50 million here!” This person said “Well, a lot of reasons you are getting these big gifts is that it’s everybody’s park and that’s a great thing to give to. You don’t want to change that image, so let’s do this Pennies campaign.” If an idea had the potential to raise money and it had PR and marketing value — and we could do it without taking too much away from another project — we’d do it.

So that idea went ahead. UMB Bank came forward to produce the canisters. You would go into the bank to get your canister and have your money counted. All we really had to do then was sign people up. The program took care of itself. We ended up raising around $80,000.

And we had such great stories from families — “We have a family dinner every Sunday, and we put the canister in the middle of the table and everybody empties their change into it.” Sally Higginbotham had a carton of the canisters in her trunk, and she asked to put them out wherever she went: her hairdressers, Baskin-Robbins in Ladue. She’d pick them back up and take them to the bank.

Sue Clancy: That goes back to that original third prong of our mission statement: the “broad base of support.” We needed to be absolutely inclusive. Some donors are capable of giving multiple millions of dollars. For others, $5,000 could be a huge portion of someone’s income. The same with $12. But we valued every single donor.

Jim Mann: Restoring the Glory came to a successful close, with construction being completed around New Year’s Eve of 2003. Our staff was here in the Visitor Center. We hired a Volunteer Coordinator and we hired a Park Operations Manager. We were doing a lot of the Park maintenance through maintenance companies at that point, but this new role was charged with really putting together the whole land management idea.

We had a Lila-Wallace Reader’s Digest grant that helped us with education programs and the teachers’ academy. We were trying to put our toe in the water, if you will. We were also looking at ways to raise more annual money and endowment money, and we really needed to start thinking about the next Strategic Plan.

I left the Executive Director role in 2006, and joined the Board. The organization struggled for a while to really define what our values were. To do a plan and to really define some of those things became important. We did some focus groups and some surveys finding out what people would support. We also looked at how much this was going to cost, how much we could do on an annual fund basis and what that left in terms of how much endowment we needed to raise. So it set the stage for this next campaign. Through Lesley’s leadership, much of this has been achieved.

Lesley S. Hoffarth, P.E., President & Executive Director, 2010 – Present

Lesley Hoffarth: I was brought on to implement the 2008 Strategic Plan. I loved the plan that was put together because it was at the same time broad but specific. It’s hard to look out five years and say that this is exactly everything you need to do. The first thing we needed to do was to secure a new agreement with the City of St. Louis.

We had to more clearly define Forest Park Forever’s role. There was an agreement drafted already when I got here, but it was more of a contract for services from Forest Park Forever, rather than a true partnership. While it’s of course the City’s park, I knew we had a bigger role to play. Coming off of managing the I-64 reconstruction project, I thought it was important that if there was going to be a growing private investment in the Park, then we needed an equal say in how the Park is maintained and operated.

Luckily, Gary Bess agreed with that. I just thought, you’ve got to ask. I knew from my experience that giving up that authority is really hard for a government agency to do. But you two were able to really move the needle in that area over the years, while always being appreciative of how we were working together with Mayor Schoemehl, Mayor Bosley, Gary Bess and others in decision-making positions with the city.

If they didn’t understand that they needed help and if they didn’t trust us, and if we hadn’t grown in our responsibility, that wouldn’t have been possible. It was a little bit it like a dog with a leash. They’d give us a little bit of leash, and we would go do something good; and then they gave us a little bit more, and we’d do more good work. Eventually, we became trusted partners and we continue to do good things together.

I just really thought we need this agreement that says we can share in the decision-making authority and understanding that we have to appreciate what the City does every day, and if we don’t show that appreciation by what we are saying and what we are doing, they can take that away from us at any point. So, it took a couple of years and a lot of creativity to get the agreement done.

As part of the agreement, Forest Park Forever was committed to raising $130 million in a new campaign, which would become Forever: The Campaign for Forest Park’s Future. We started thinking about if we are going to raise that kind of money for the Park, how do we make sure the City continues to put in what they are currently putting in? If we are going to raise dollars, they have got to raise dollars. That first campaign made sure that happened. But over time, the needs have grown. As Gary liked to say, construction is the easy part, but taking care of it forever — that’s a tall order. And he’s right.

Just as you two were having these conservations with Board members about maybe we need to stick around and take care of the Park and they didn’t necessarily agree with that at first, my early conservation with the Board was about we’ve got to be willing to accept where the City is now and not expect that they are able to put in more money into the Park. They already put in everything they have; they are going to be paying off their bonds for another 10 years. We can help keep them where they are in terms of contributions and grow our responsibility.

Gary recognized, Okay, we don’t have to give up anything else, but if we can just figure out how to stay where we are, Forest Park Forever is going to be bringing a lot more money to the table. I think that gave him again that confidence that we are in this together for the long-term health of the Park. And yes, if you are going to bring half or more than half of the cost of taking care of the Park every year, the City should be giving you an equal seat at the table. I think if Gary hadn’t developed great relationships with you two and the Board didn’t have that trust, he never would have advocated for the partnership.

Sue Clancy: Gary was a pragmatist: “Here is the job that has to get done. How do we do this?” He always had his eye on what’s important.

Lesley Hoffarth: At the end of the meeting with Gary, he was walking out the door and he said, “If I were you guys, I would bond for it.” We struggled with how that would work. We worked with our lawyers. It took us a while to come up with our concept of a specific type of bond transaction, but we did.

We went to pitch it to the Mayor’s office, and the Mayor immediately got it. He thought it was a great idea and asked if we could do this for the other parks in the City.

What he meant was, could you raise private dollars for the other parks so that we could have this bond offering with Forest Park Forever and you would agree to use the bond repayment to take care of other city parks.

In reading Forest Park Forever’s articles of incorporation and talking to others, it was clear our job was to take care of this Park. That said, maybe we could think about it a little differently. We were thinking about how to help ensure success and help shape the agreement into something our local aldermen would be interested in supporting.

Forest Park Forever paid for the necessary legal work, economic development studies and everything that was done to say we could do a similar bond offering for the other 100-plus city parks. It would be a public offering from their point of view. It’s a private offering for Forest Park, but it allowed Gary to advance his list of $86 million worth of projects for these other 100 parks. He would never have the funding necessary to complete the capital needs on that list.

In the end, Gary was able to leave a legacy — with $26 million in the final bond transaction for those other parks. With just about every alderman having a park, it passed — 24 out of the 28 alderman voted for it. That was huge. But it was that thinking — Forest Park is a hub for the community but there’s a lot of other good things going on, too — that was so important.

Sue Clancy: To me, this Forever campaign is about keeping the promise. The promise that I made 20 some odd years ago to the donors was this: “If you support us, if you help us restore Forest Park, we will never let it fall into disarray again.” I made that promise but I did not know how to keep it. But I knew I had to make it. What Jim has done and what Lesley is doing now with this campaign — this is keeping the promise.

Jim Mann: It’s very similar with me. When you’ve really seen this Forest Park comeback personally, it would just be devastating to think that it would fall back into disrepair. You do feel like you have made a personal commitment to a lot of people. You’ve asked them to do a lot of things and to give money and to give time— it’s just so great to see it continuing.

Lesley Hoffarth: The Master Plan was put together and it envisioned a lot of things being rebuilt, reorganized and restored. We weren’t able to do all of it the first time around. I think it’s really important to follow through with what we said we would do as part of keeping a promise to the community.

So this next group of projects that we are doing is keeping that promise to that group of people who spent so much time envisioning what this Park could be — and it’s helping to bring that vision to life.

I think Forest Park has grown to be a jewel that when people come here, they expect every trip to be magical. They just do. And we want to make sure that actually happens. Our staff loves what they do. They work really hard, right here in the Park alongside great staff from the City. It brings joy to our staff to see people enjoying this Park. It’s a beautiful place with beautiful landscapes and structures — that was all part of this vision. But it’s the people who are here every day that really bring it to life and make it a one-of-a-kind experience.

There’s an important part of this, of course, beyond the capital projects. Sue and Jim really thought through the endowment needs of the organization. With this campaign, we are growing the pot of money needed to care for the Park and to have a plan in place for long-term maintenance.

It’s exciting that we have the opportunity to be putting processes in place to grow our partnership with the City in a way that I don’t know was ever envisioned — but it really is a true partnership. We are working collaboratively on how do we take care of the Park forever. Beyond what the City does here in Forest Park, what practices are we putting in place here that can help other parks around the city as well? That’s a pretty cool legacy for Forest Park Forever. This partnership continues to grow. They should know they have a trusted partner, and we will be here to help them.

Sue Clancy: I remember back to the mission statement we talked about earlier, we really struggled with whether Forest Park would be the premier park or a premier park. We finally decided on a premier park because we were not bold enough. Now we are the — no longer a — premier park. That’s exciting.

Lesley Hoffarth: The deep memories people have in Forest Park goes right in line with what we are finding with this Forever campaign. We’re raising $130 million. Many of the experts we talked to said, “This is going to be near impossible. It’s so much easier to raise capital dollars than it is endowment dollars, and you want to raise three times as much in endowment dollars?”

But what we are finding is we have so many people who feel so strongly about this park that it has to be in good condition forever. If you look at our fundraising pyramid, it’s on its head. Capital is usually easier to fundraiser for, and endowment more challenging. We continue to have great success with attracting gifts to the endowment.

Sue Clancy: I remember way back when we first started, and the Board said we needed to do a feasibility study. And I thought, “No, no, no.” Because anybody would say to us there’s no way you can do this: “I don’t need to pay $40,000 for what I already know — that this is crazy.” But we had no choice. We had to do this. And we did it. We flew in the face of reason.

Sue Clancy: Reflecting on the organization at this stage, I’m so grateful. I’m thankful that the vision that we all had is a reality. It’s not over yet. But it’s just a wonderful gift, both that we’ve given to the City and that we’ve received in terms of being able to be part of it. When I drive through Forest Park today, I remember my early years hiring Kiku Obata to draw renderings and pictures, because we needed them to raise money. And now I look out: It’s there! It’s real! It’s quite a miracle. It’s miraculous and it’s joyful.

Jim Mann: We were lucky enough to have these jobs at different, exciting times. But people really gave everything to this, from Parks Director Gary Bess to the staff to the Board. I’m friends with all those people still. But you’ve gone through something so special, you remain friends.

Lesley Hoffarth: Not coming from the fundraising world before I took this job, it has been great to see how rewarding it is for people to give. While it is really exciting for our team to hear someone say, “I’ll give you $3 million to support the Park” — to see the joy on their faces, that’s what I think is so awesome. With Forest Park, people give because they have this deep love for the Park, because they understand how important it is to the community, and that it’s for all of us. For all walks of life. It’s great to see all parts of the community here. And I think it just gives people great joy, both to give and be part of part of the collective experience here. There truly is nothing like Forest Park. What an honor for all of us to be part of this journey.