From its proximity to Lake Michigan for summertime hiking and beach activities to its ample wintertime snowfall, Portage is a year-round recreation destination. But Mother Nature isn’t the only one working hard to help keep Portage such a fun and active place to live.

At the Portage Parks and Recreation Department, Jenny Orsburn and her hard-working staff strive every day to make sure the community’s residents have access to a diverse slate of programs and recreation options, all designed to keep the city active and engaged.

“I love working with a team of very dedicated individuals who all believe in continuous improvement and never settling,” Orsburn says. “We are always looking for ways to make Portage better, because we all truly believe the citizens expect and deserve the best.”

Less Is More

In her four years as superintendent, Orsburn has tried to meet those expectations by spearheading or overseeing a number of changes in the Parks Department, including a much-needed modernization of the registration and payment system. In addition, despite the typical belief that more = better, one significant trend in recent years under Osburn’s watch has been toward actually offering fewer programs, but with a greater focus on quality.

“When I started it seemed we offered numerous programs with very little attendance,” she recalls. “Staff evaluated all of the programs and focused their energy on the ones we do very well, the ones that the community most values. As a result, we’ve poured more energy and resources into popular programs like our youth soccer and adult softball leagues, the Daddy-Daughter Dance and Mother-Son Movie Night, and our Haunted Hayride, as well as craft shows and Movies in the Park.”

What’s New?

Even as Orsburn has pared back some of the program offerings, however, the parks system’s range of facilities has continued to expand in recent years. In addition to longtime favorites like the lakefront and riverwalk, residents can now enjoy the department’s newest jewels – Brookview Park and Founders Square. Brookview is a long-promised neighborhood park featuring a playground, shelter and basketball court, with landscaping scheduled to be completed before the summer. Founders Square, meanwhile, is a high-profile downtown destination that continues to grow and evolve as a hub for the community.

“Founders Square is newly remodeled and is one of the important cornerstones to Portage’s downtown,” Orsburn explains. “Thousands have visited the splash pad, relaxed at the outdoor movies and visited our Trunk or Treat event in the fall. This year the city will also complete construction of Founders Pavilion, a performance venue for concerts and events.”

Even with these new additions to the system, however, Orsburn expects the most popular facilities and activities to continue to be some of the old reliables.

“Our ten miles of paved bike trails—specifically, the Prairie Duneland Trail and Iron Horse Heritage Trail—remain our most popular ‘places’ in the city,” she says.

Looking Ahead

As for future developments, Orsburn points to upcoming renovations to the former Alton Goin Museum, a fishing pier at Countryside Park and connector paths in Perry Park and Wolfe Park. The department is also continuing to upgrade its web presence, providing more information online and offering an online reservation system for Woodland Park. The goal in each of these cases, she says, is to continue to provide the residents of Portage with great spaces to relax and a park system they can be proud of.

“Parks and community programs are essential to the high quality of life that families seek in Portage, and we take great pride in our parks,” she says. “I believe that residents and visitors should feel safe in their parks, that the parks should be clean and well maintained, and that all park programs should be family-friendly and of high quality. I hope residents will continue to contact us and let us know how we’re doing!”

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