Upgraded mower fleet and strong maintenance program keep the Windy City’s parks and athletic fields green, safe and attractive

Ernest Alvarado knows numbers. A civil engineer by education and training, and earlier in his career the president of a construction/engineering company, he’s well aware of the significance of 6 million. That’s the number of eyes that see and judge the performance of his department just about every day. The 6 million eyes belong to Chicago’s approximately 3 million residents, and that’s not counting the millions of out-of-towners who visit the Chicago Park District’s 583 parks each year.

Ernest Alvarado improved the quality and operational efficiency of Chicago’s mowing program with smart purchasing and a structured management plan. The city has about 200 commercial mowers in its fleet and cuts 6,000 acres of grass.

Alvarado holds the unwieldy title of facility manager for the Department of Natural Resources at the Chicago Park District. He assumed that title and its attendant responsibilities in April 2008, 14 years after joining the district. As facility manager, working out of office headquarters in downtown Chicago, Alvarado is in charge of setting up and managing the department’s annual budget. He helps and advises Director Adam Schwerner on the management of a $37 million budget, nearly 300 full-time employees, and more than 600 seasonal employees during the summer season.

“I help coordinate and assist our supervisors in the management of the department’s field operations,” says Alvarado. This includes overseeing all equipment and vehicle maintenance; district-wide garbage and recycling; assisting supervisors in the maintenance of 24 beaches and floral gardens; and forestry operations. His day-to-day duties include planning, scheduling, work order systems, capital projects, budgeting, estimating and purchasing, landscape equipment maintenance, and vehicle and equipment rental.

The size of the Chicago Park District’s green spaces – about 8,100 acres total – ranks it among the largest municipal parks in the nation. “There are other park districts with more acreage, but I don’t think there are any used as intensively as ours. We maintain all of that acreage at a high level,” says Alvarado. In all, his department cuts more than 6,000 acres of turfgrass.

Modernizing for productivity

Alvarado vividly recalls those first weeks after being appointed as the district’s facility manager more than four years ago. “When I came into the department, I sat down with the director, Adam Schwerner, and we both began looking at everything with the goal of making it better,” he says.

One area he investigated was improving the quality and operational efficiency of the mowing program. The Department of Natural Resources saw that by modernizing the park district’s mowing fleet it would improve its utility in the field and make it more cost-effective. Alvarado also worked on a plan to extend the useful life of the equipment. Once the department secured the necessary capital funds, Alvarado was able to purchase 162 new mowers over the next two years from John Deere through a competitively bid contract ultimately won by Shorewood Home and Auto.

It’s not just about mowing grass

Natural Resources, for which Ernest Alvarado serves as facility manager, is one of four divisions under the Operations Department of the Chicago Park District. It is considered the “green” department of the district and is responsible for maintaining and managing more than 8,100 acres of land.

It manages and maintains two world-class conservatories, 25 acres of floral gardens citywide, 1,000 turf-based athletic fields, more than 500 soft-surfaced playgrounds, an urban forest of 250,000 trees, 31 public beaches, more than 500 acres classified as nature areas, and 25 lagoons and natural water features.

It also administers and manages the district’s contracts for trash removal and recycling, enhanced landscape maintenance of 20 miles of landscaped medians, elevated care and maintenance for the Museum Campus and Grant Park, as well as the district’s holiday lighting and holiday tree recycling programs.

And, what about Soldier Field, home field of the NFL’s Chicago Bears? Yep, it manages that, too.

In 2010, the department purchased 20 new John Deere 1445 Series II commercial front mowers, 20 Deere 1600 wide-area mowers, 50 Deere 977-Series ZTraks, 20 ZTrak PRO Z925 mowers, and eight walk-behind mowers, Deere 7H17 units. In 2011, the department purchased six additional 1600s, 36 ZTraks, and two Deere 1445s. The Chicago Park District has about 200 commercial mowers in its fleet, and these purchases effectively upgraded almost the entire fleet.

“I structured a five-year contract for purchasing, maintaining and repairing the mowers, as well as an unprecedented five-year warranty from John Deere,” says Alvarado. “When I came into the department we had contracted maintenance and repair that was not meeting the needs of our field staff. I worked directly with our vendors to make sure everything gets preventive maintenance according to the manufacturer’s recommendations, and that everything gets repaired promptly.”

Multipurpose units

Alvarado notes that by buying out-front mowers, the district can equip them with a blade, snowblower or rotary broom, making them useful for winter property management services, as well as for mowing. Even though the mowers are sometimes used for winter services, the facility manager saw to it that they’re properly stored inside when not in use. Only about 10 percent of the mower fleet is used in the winter; the rest of the fleet is stored indoors. This alone should add years to the life of the equipment.

Alvarado says his department is looking at a five- to seven-year mower replacement schedule, but he’s hopeful that the district will get 10 years service from many of the rugged, diesel units.

Chicago is generally (and rightly) regarded as one of the “greenest” major cities in the United States, a source of pride for the Chicago Park District and, of course, Alvarado.

“When we contracted for our new mowers, we also pushed for them to be set up so they would run on biodiesel,” says Alvarado. ‘We have our own biodiesel plant, and over 80 percent of our newer mowers are powered by biodiesel.”

As the Chicago Park District continues to grow it continues to preserve and add “natural” areas for the education and enjoyment of its citizens. Alvarado says the park district takes its role as a steward and a leader in the larger national environmental movement seriously.

“We’re definitely providing services in a more naturalistic way,” says Alvarado, mentioning the presence of prairies as a valuable part of the district. He also points out that his department uses small quantities of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers on maintained and mowed grasslands and parks.

That’s not to say the appearance of the parks and other mowed areas is unimportant. Quite the contrary, says Alvarado emphatically. The appearance of the parks, playgrounds and other mowed areas must look good, and they must look good system-wide and in every neighborhood.

Call us anytime

“We’re always available to the public, and they can contact us anytime,” says Alvarado.

Generally, properties are mowed to a 3-inch height once a week. In the spring and fall, when grass grows faster, properties are mowed as often as it takes to keep them attractive and healthy.

“We do a lot of weeding; it’s very labor-intensive,” he admits. Beyond that, the department aerifies, topdresses and reseeds areas where the turfgrass is damaged by pests, disease or foot traffic.

Alvardao says, “The park district strives to be knowledgeable, involved, proactive and relentless in bringing the best service at the least cost to the citizens of Chicago. When we supply our well-trained staff with the best equipment and services they need to accomplish their work, we can only succeed in meeting and exceeding the mission and core values that the Chicago Park District has set for itself.”

Ron Hall is editor-in-chief of Turf magazine and has been reporting on the green industry since 1984. Contact him at rhall@mooserivermedia.com.