By Carissa Hansen, Digital Strategist

Lake Norcentra Park on the campus of Rochester University boasts thousands of visitors per year. With its inviting landscape and scenic path connecting to the Clinton River Trail, it’s no wonder why.

The park has taken several iterations to become what it is today. Larry Stewart, director of alumni information, and Brad Irwin, senior development officer, started planning a transformation of the park in 2013.

Previously, the park had been neglected for many years and was no longer a place for people to enjoy, to relax beside the lake, or for admissions recruiters to show to prospective students. The patio, barbeque pits and stairways had deteriorated and areas had become overgrown and unkept.  

With close proximity to the Clinton River Trail, a recreational multi-use trail on abandoned rail lines, RU was motivated to bring the space back to life so the community could enjoy it.

Irwin graduated from RU in 1996, and he served on the Alumni Association board. He was looking for something that would give alumni a reason to be excited about coming back to campus, and the park project came to mind. He helped coordinate several Lake Norcentra cleanup days for alumni. He then arranged a design charrette, an intensive, hands-on workshop for campus and community leaders, to develop a master plan for the park. 

Irwin said it took three years from the first stages of cleaning the park to make it presentable. Stewart said volunteers have been and will continue to be an important part of the park development story. 

“In addition to individuals who have assisted in specific tasks, a variety of groups have volunteered in special clean-up days and targeted projects…since 2015, we have logged 3,559 hours of volunteer labor,” he said.

As the project grew in scope, Tom Rellinger, executive vice president and chief financial officer, hired Irwin to serve as a contract project manager to make the park into a place available for students and the public. At the time. Irwin ran his own consulting business. He successfully led a campaign that raised $100,000 for park improvements, acquiring funding from the state of Michigan, private donors and businesses. 

“As a student, when I was 18-19 years old, I made a promise to myself that I would give that campus some love,” Irwin said.

Irwin hired a historian to do research on the site, which was originally a berry and orchard farm. He contacted the grandson of the man who sold the property to the founders of RU and learned that in the 1860s, workers had dug sand and gravel out of a gravel pit to make bricks, and this formed what is now called Lake Norcentra. 

After Irwin’s consultant role and campaign ended, Stewart began coordinating park improvements.

Stewart said, “Improvements made possible from the campaign included the Rochester Community Mural on the back of the gym, fountains and aerators for the lake, new park lighting, entrance and historical signage, and the deck. Eventually, additional funds were raised for the gazebos, Gallaher patio, outdoor chapel, and amphitheater.”

The City of Rochester Hills evaluated accessibility issues, potential locations to connect the Clinton River Trail, developed signage and walked the property. The City of Rochester donated light poles and trash cans.

Ken Elwert from the City of Rochester Hills said the park encourages people to use the trail system since it’s so close to Rochester and one can get to various places. He wants more people to visit the park and suggested implementing summer pop-up events with small bands or musicians to draw people in. “You have to give them a reason to go there,” he said.

Irwin said he enjoys working for Rochester University because “anyone can build anything. From the time I was a student until now, all I see is potential because here I can build something if I work hard, take a risk,” he said.

Phase One of the project is completed. Future phases will include trail improvements, landscaping, adding polywood benches and picnic tables, and re-engineering the 80-foot drop from the top to bottom of campus. 

To access Lake Norcentra Park, you can enter from the westside of campus near the Gallaher Center or from the Clinton River Trail, which spans 4.5 miles through Rochester Hills. The park is open 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week.