What's Up? Visionaries: Jerome “Jerry” Parks
Jan 19, 2016 04:08PM ● Published by James Houck
“I see a ‘Big Mouth Billy Bass’ mounted behind you,” I note to Jerry after we exchange pleasantries and sit down—he at his expansive desk and me in a cozy couch for visitors. “Are you a fishing man,” I ask. He glances at the toy fish that sings “Take Me to the River” and proudly perks up, telling me of his love for the sport of angling. We offer each other a few tales of memorable fishing trips before settling into the meat of our conversation about his nearly six-decade career and accomplishments. I would come to learn that his love for fishing, of the water, and of the region’s natural beauty is, ironically perhaps, at the root of this developer’s passion to create man-made beauty in and around the city of Annapolis and beyond. And man-made is about as on point a description for how Parks built his development business—he literally constructed with his own two hands one project after another, snowballing his own hard labor into the multi-million dollar success it is today.
It was, perhaps, a hard road early in life. Born to Samuel and Lillian Parks, Jerry and family were not wealthy in the decade proceeding the Great Depression—quite the opposite he recalls. “We lived on 7th and Florida Avenue in Washington, D.C. We didn’t have any money, the rats fell through the ceiling when you’re trying to sleep, and you couldn’t sleep because you’re scared to death. I always remember my mother cooking on this little two-burner gas stove. Every morning, this man would knock on the back door and ask, ‘Miss Lil, you wanna play the numbers today?’ She didn’t play the numbers. She understood the concept but this wasn’t her. He’d say, ‘How ’bout just a ten cent number?’ She’d take out a dime and give it to him. I’d ask her why she did and she told me, ‘Because he’s our neighbor.’” This generosity planted a philanthropic seed in Parks that blossomed in the years to come (more on this later).
As one of four brothers, Parks’ childhood revolved around family, boyhood pursuits, and odd jobs to earn a buck. “Growing up, I mowed lawns for neighbors, one of whom was blind. She asked me to repair a brick post on her house. I thought it would be easy, but learned quickly that I was not a mason,” he recalls. “Fortunately, the post was stable when finished, not beautiful, but acceptable. The lesson was, ‘if you do not try, you will not learn.’” Through weekend jobs, such as this, Jerry would learn many basic trades and, at only age 11, he helped his father remodel an entire house. “That is what I call hands-on experience.”
At age 17, Parks joined the Naval Reserves in Silver Spring and during the summers off from school, he’d teeter between that obligation and building additions on homes. Parks would enter Penn State and pursue a degree for a couple years, before learning of the G.I. Bill and the opportunity to serve his country for two years in active duty—just as the Korean War was winding down—in exchange for four years of paid college tuition. “I said ‘this is a no brainer’ and for the next two years I’m in the Navy. I could see the world and go back to school on Uncle Sam. It was probably a better educational time of my life, from an organizational standpoint,” Parks says.
“I got to see things I probably never would have [otherwise]. It was terrific. I got out of the Navy. I thought this is great, I’ve got my four years. Penn State wanted me back. Just before starting school, I got a call about a project—somebody needed a build-out of a warehouse. ‘Can you do it?’ they asked. I priced it out, did the project in 60 days, and got the check. All of a sudden, I had made more money than I had my whole life. Then somebody else calls and says they’ve got a project. Bingo. Next thing, I’m just going from project to project and school becomes elusive. It was a great segue to where I was going.”
Though college remained ever elusive, opportunities did not. Parks would grow his project list to include garden apartments/complexes, office buildings, marinas, and mixed-use developments. Going strong seven days a week and building success after success, though, burned him out by age 35. “I decided to stop and eventually moved to Annapolis. As the saying goes, ‘the rest is history.’” Not one to lay low, Parks picked up his own development mantle and gave it another go, starting with three houses on Third Street in Eastport, apartment renovations on Burnside Street nearby, the Severn 100 complex, Chesapeake Landing, 9 State Circle, Chesapeake Harbour, and many more on through the year 2000, when Park Place on West Street, which took ten years to build, took root.
Of them all, I ask Jerry which has been the most rewarding—a tough question for him to answer at first, “All of them have been significant,” but after a pause for consideration, he launches into the tale of Chesapeake Landing and the Maryland Capital Yacht Club (now the Annapolis Maryland Capital Yacht Club). Immediately upon moving to Annapolis, Parks developed a love for sailing, befriending local legendary sailors Jerry Woods and Arnie Gay. “I became addicted to sailing. Did all kinds of Annapolis to Newport races, ocean races, and stuff,” he begins. What he couldn’t do, however, was join the Annapolis Yacht Club, which, at the time, did not accept Jewish members.
“I acquired the marina at the end of Chesapeake Avenue in Eastport. I got a call that the yacht club would like to buy the land…I said ‘Okay,’ but then had second thoughts. I can’t join their club, but was going to sell them the land? That didn’t sit right. I was told times were changing, but I didn’t want to hear about change. So I proceeded to develop it myself and created the MCYC. We had women members, black members…anybody. If you had a boat, you could join the club,” Parks says. I can tell his eyes are getting heavy with emotion.
The delivery of this story is emblematic of Parks’ character, generosity, and willingness to help others. In fact, among his many philanthropic accolades is one for which he seems most passionate. Arts access and education for underprivileged youth. After acquainting himself with the National Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts (National Young Arts Foundation), based in Miami, Parks served as its Chairman of the Board (2003–05). “I thought it was the greatest thing since canned milk.” He would steer this passion back to Annapolis, coincidentally when the Parks Place development was nearing completion. The vision? A state-of-the-art performing arts center in the heart of Annapolis, providing access to world-class performances for residents, students, and arts lovers of all walks of life. Today, that dream persists in the form of the 501(c)(3) Maryland Theatre for the Performing Arts, currently in its capital campaign.
“I’m very optimistic that it’s going to happen,” Parks says. Hopefully, it’ll be the next big fish Jerry lands and, more than likely, not his last.