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Grand Rapids, meet mParks: Major Michigan conference set in home sweet home

Ann Conklin

Grand Rapids' dedication to green space has not gone unnoticed. The Michigan Recreation and Parks Association is holding its major annual trade show in GR, bringing close to 1,000 parks aficionados to Grand Rapids in an effort that showcases our city as a hub for parks and recreation.
It's almost the new year, and while we're all digging out from under mounds of snow, the Michigan Recreation and Parks Association (mParks) is putting the finishing touches on its 2017 conference and trade show. An annual event attended by about 1,000 people, the conference will this year be held at the Amway Grand Hotel and DeVos Place in Grand Rapids. With the location selection, a dizzying array of exhibitors, an impressive lineup of educational sessions and a diverse list of experiential learning opportunities throughout greater Grand Rapids, mParks is showing that GR is the region's hub for parks and recreation, and the ideal location for professionals and enthusiasts in the field to meet, learn and celebrate.
 
"The city of Grand Rapids is a favorite of our organization," says Ann Conklin, the chief operating officer of mParks, Michigan's leading parks organization that advocates, inspires and teaches about the value of the state's myriad of parks and recreation opportunities. Founded in 1935 and recently rebranded from the original MRPA, mParks took its look for a new spin in 2015 to update its image and invite everyone to "Come Out and Play," a new slogan developed by the marketing professionals behind "Pure Michigan."

Ann Conklin, Chief Operating Officer of mParks
 
Working with everyone from government entities to schools to nonprofits, mParks is an organization focused on one goal: "proving parks and recreation matter; that they improve quality of life and contribute enormously to our economy," according to their website. One important element of their advocacy is education, which they practice through a variety of ways, such as the Certified Playground Safety Inspector Course & Exam, the Certified Youth Sports Administrator Academy and Aquatic Facility Operator Course & Exam. However, their biggest educational and social event is their conference and trade show.
 
Hosted in a different Michigan city each year, this annual event attracts about 1,000 parks and recreation professionals to the hosting community and requires appropriate accommodations, plenty of space and a professional environment. According to Conklin, mParks staff "love the city, they love the walkability [and] they love the amenities." With hundreds of nearby trails and a recently rebooted parks system, GR was an easy choice for Conklin and her compatriots.
 
Held at DeVos Place, the pre-conference trails summit begins on Tuesday, Jan. 31. With the Michigan DNR, North Country Trials, National Park Service, IMBA (mountain biking), WMTGC, Michigan Trails & Greenways, and MDOT already set to speak at this smaller gathering, Conklin is already way ahead on her registration count. "We're hoping for a record crowd this year," she says. The summit will feature keynote speaker United Tribes of Michigan Executive Director Frank Ettawageshik, as well as a variety of educational breakout sessions like "the collective impact of non motorized trails" and "connecting trails and health."
 
Just before the conference begins, Dr. Lynn Dominguez from Central Michigan University will host a workshop for "Growing up WILD", "an early childhood education program that builds on children's sense of wonder about nature and invites them to explore wildlife and the world around them." Other educational and experiential opportunities like these will be held throughout the conference, which officially begins on Tuesday at 4pm and runs through Thursday at 5pm.
 
John Morrison, the executive director for the West Michigan Trails and Greenways Coalition (WMTGC) and co-host of the conference, notes that GR is a viable location to host an event with so many off-site educational sessions. "Grand Rapids and the West Michigan region have so much going on with trails—non-motorized, hiking, mountain biking and even water trails, that this is a perfect place to host the next trail summit," he says.
 
Other off-site sessions include a visit to Pigeon Creek Park in West Olive to explore Ottawa County Parks' operation of their ski and snowshoe rental and an educational afternoon at the Grand Rapids Public Museum learning about how parks and cities combine efforts to incorporate river access and tourism.
 
Showcasing the best from the region, WMTGC and other local organizations have banded together to show mParks and their conference attendees a good time. "People involved from the region have been outstanding leaders," says Conklin. The conference even includes an 80s theme party and lip sync battle networking event to get to know other parks and recreation professionals in a casual atmosphere. What's not to love?
 
With everything from early morning fitness sessions to offsite experiential learning opportunities to networking events to educational sessions, the mParks Conference and Trade Show is a must-attend event for the parks and rec community. This year set in our fair city, visitors will get more than they bargained for with a myriad of new eateries, cafes and retail shops at their convenience. "Grand Rapids as a city has so much to offer participants with great restaurants, breweries, museums, entertainment, and so much more," says Morrison.  
 
This article is part of an ongoing series, Moments on the Trails, and was made possible by the West Michigan Trails & Greenways Coalition. For more information about the WMTGC, visit wmtrails.org.

Photography by Adam Bird.
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