As Mark Millett took me on a tour of Greenhurst Commons park Thursday, it didn’t take long until he was reminded why he built it.
Auburn resident Becky Schmidt came walking our way with her daughter, Anna, and their dog.
“We’re just enjoying this wonderful space,” Schmidt told Millett. “What a wonderful thing for our community!”
“It’s better than a bunch of houses,” Millett replied.
A bunch of houses is what some people wanted to build on the grounds of the former Greenhurst Country Club, a fixture on the north side of Auburn for 95 years.
Millett and his wife, Abby, thought otherwise. Both grew up in big cities — he in Plymouth, England, she in New York. Both learned to appreciate the green spaces in parks.
“Greenhurst reminded me of the park I grew up with,” Millett said. He thought it would be a “total shame” to develop it.
“I just felt this was a phenomenal piece of property. The trees and the landscape are so mature,” he said.
So in 2013, when Greenhurst closed and owners were deciding its fate with an eye toward profit, Millett called Auburn philanthropist Rick James.
The two men share a success in heavy industry — Millett as CEO of Steel Dynamics Inc. and James as chief executive of Metal Technologies Inc. They also share a love of Auburn, where James grew up and where Millett makes his home on the border of Greenhurst.
Millett suggested putting together a group to buy Greenhurst and preserve it as a nature park. James replied that they didn’t need a group — their two families could do it.
The James Foundation of Rick and Vicki James and the Milletts’ Cairn Foundation bought the 120-acre golf course in late 2013
“It wasn’t inexpensive,” Millett said. County records show the price at $1.1 million.
They set to work removing all reminders that the property used to be a golf course, letting natural vegetation come back. They laid down asphalt walkways winding through the trees, wide enough for bicycles and pedestrians.
Cedar Creek splits the park, and two of its three bridges over the creek have been removed for safety reasons. Millett said they’ll be replaced soon, opening more of the site to visitors.
The park has been set up as a charitable trust. Its new guardians aim to form a public board to get the community involved.
“The intent is for this property to be here forever for the enjoyment of the community,” Millett said. A fundraising party in the park is planned for this fall.
First, however, a grand-opening celebration will take place Saturday, June 17. Details will be revealed soon.
As people began using the park even before the official opening, Millett said, “We had to smile, because people are walking their dogs — and bikes, and kids and prams (a British term for baby strollers).”
Explaining his motives, Millett said, “Abby and I feel it’s an obligation to give back.” The Jameses have expressed similar sentiments about their many gifts to northeast Indiana.
“You talk about the American dream,” Millett said. “Abby and I have lived it, and it’s done phenomenal things for us and our family. You’ve got to give back.”