From Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center to Meadowbrook Park, Nancy Wallerstein’s time on parks board leaves lasting legacy

Nancy Wallerstein was a driving force behind efforts to transform the former Meadowbrook Country Club property into a new county park, which is expected to open this spring.

The Shawnee Mission area has been the beneficiary of major investment by the Johnson County Park and Recreation District over the past several years. From the renovation of the vacant King Louie building on Metcalf to become the new Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center; to the acquisition of the Meadowbrook Country Club site for the creation of a new public park; to the partnership with the Shawnee Mission School District on the operation of a new state-of-the-art aquatic center in Lenexa, the expansion of county parks projects in the area has been unprecedented.

And, say many county insiders, it’s unlikely that any of those projects would have happened without the work of Prairie Village resident Nancy Wallerstein on the JCPRD board of directors.

Hundreds gathered outside the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center in June 2017 for the facility’s grand opening.

First appointed in 1999, Wallerstein wrapped up her two decade stint on the board earlier this year, finishing as the longest-serving member in board history. Over that time, three separate commissioners appointed Wallerstein to the District 1 position on the parks board: Gary Anderson, Ed Peterson and Ron Shaffer. Wallerstein, a close political ally of Shaffer dating back to their time as members of the Prairie Village city council in the 1990s, had run Shaffer’s reelection campaign for the county commission last year. With Shaffer losing to former Roeland Park Councilmember Becky Fast, Fast assumed the right to name the parks board representative for the district, and chose not to reappoint Wallerstein.

Wallerstein’s tenure on the board is notable not only for its length, say parks officials, but for the results she was able to achieve.

“Her contributions to our organization are far too numerous to mention,” said Johnson County Park and Recreation District Executive Director Jill Geller. “But know that Nancy Wallerstein is a ‘doer.’ She doesn’t talk about getting things done – she gets things done. JCPRD and the residents of Johnson County have benefited greatly from her many years of service.”

Advocacy for Meadowbrook Park, Arts & Heritage Center

Prairie Village and Johnson County officials joined leaders from VanTrust Real Estate to break ground on the development at Meadowbrook in May 2016.

Wallerstein recalls running into the chief financial officer of Meadowbrook Country Club at a social event shortly after the club determined it would likely have to shut down among waning financial prospects. The parks district had identified northeast Johnson County as among the underserved areas in the county, and the golf course acreage provided a rare and unique opportunity for a big new park in a built-out area.

JCPRD staff and officials, including Wallerstein (on the left holding the award) accepting the National Gold Medal Award for Excellence in Park and Recreation Management in 2017 New Orleans.

“I went up to him and said, ‘JCPRD wants to buy that land. That’s all there is to it’,” she said.

The membership ultimately decided to sell the land to VanTrust Real Estate, a move that would allow them to keep the club open for a few more years — but Wallerstein and the parks district kept in touch with the new owners.

“Once the ink was set on the VanTrust purchase, we were kind of the bridesmaids,” Wallerstein said. “But VanTrust called the district and said, just wait a little while, and we think we’ll be able to come back to you.”

Sure enough, in 2016, VanTrust, JCPRD and the city of Prairie Village announced the deal that would turn 84 acres of the former golf club into a public park that would abut a variety of new housing developments.

Wallerstein calls the work to keep a county park in the mix for Meadowbrook among her proudest accomplishments on the board.

“It’s really creating this community within a park and it’s already won some awards,” she said. “I remember going by on Christmas Day and seeing people already out walking the trails and enjoying it. I think it’s going to be a fantastic opportunity for the community for decades.”

Wallerstein is also pleased with the outcome of the transformation of the King Louie property, which turned the vacant bowling alley into a facility with event and meeting space, a black box theatre, rehearsal and art areas, and the Johnson County Museum.

“It has become the biggest beehive in Johnson County,” Wallerstein said. “There are so many programs there and so many children coming in and out. I just love how all the new programs and the arts are being brought to the community there.”

But her impact goes beyond the Shawnee Mission area. Geller credits Wallerstein’s advocacy for greenspace and trails with preserving land for public use throughout the county.

“Her dedication to providing greenspace in Johnson County resulted in the opening of thousands of acres of parkland to Johnson County residents, including Kill Creek Park, Camp Branch Glade, Stilwell Community Park, Lexington Lake Park, and Big Bull Creek Park,” Geller said.

Those efforts, and many others, put JCPRD among the most well regarded parks operations in the country, Geller said.

“Her leadership greatly contributed to JCPRD being awarded the National Gold Medal of Excellence (recognition as the best park and recreation agency in the nation) in 2017,” said Geller.