Mayor Mary Verner deserves much credit for moving quickly to fix the mess in the Parks Department. In her first days in office she fired the overmatched Mike Stone and hired as interim director the highly respected former city manager, Roger Crum. She could have done nothing more to reassure the city that she valued experience, skill and continuity.
The two finalists are Roger Thomas, who presently directs the Parks and Recreation Department in Provo, Utah, and Barry Russell, who serves as interim director of parks and recreation in El Paso, Texas. Russell is no stranger to the Northwest. He served as director of parks in Kirkland for five years before moving to El Paso. And while Thomas has spent most of his career in Provo (he was educated at Brigham Young University) he isn't unfamiliar with the Northwest. From 1989 until 1996 he worked in community services in Puyallup.
We need a person who is sensitive, first and foremost, to Spokane's unique parks history. Ours is an Olmsted Brothers city, and as such we have a tradition that deserves a steward who both understands the significance of what this means and possesses the bureaucratic skill to stand a good watch. To be parks director in Spokane is to buy into the best of conservation. No need to reinvent the wheel.
Our parks need tending and the money hasn't been there. Some dedicated city staff actually work on their own to provide upkeep. No pay at all. Shouldn't deferred maintenance go to the top of our civic radar screen? I think so.
Then there are all those porta-potties. The Olmsteds would roll over in their graves. No self-respecting city would treat its legacy like this. We need to refurbish the stone and brick permanent restrooms.
Or consider Riverfront Park. There, we have amusement rides of a quality better suited for parking lots in low-end malls. Something needs to be done. And how about all those cheaply sided ticket shacks that welcome visitors to the park. There should be no wooden structures in Riverfront Park, period. Our native basalt should be used for all park construction.
Just because Spokane isn't a wealthy city doesn't mean that it has to be a tacky city.
Nor does Spokane's parks heritage end with the Olmsteds' work. Our public golf system is known far and wide for its uniqueness. The city operates four distinctly different courses. The crown jewel, of course, is Indian Canyon, built during the '30s, in the middle of the Depression by FDR's New Deal work programs, and designed by Chandler Egan, who was on the Pebble Beach redesign team during the '30s. This course has played host to two National Public Links tournaments, even hosted PGA tournaments. The four-round course record is held by none other than Byron Nelson.
Notably, none of our courses needs more help than "The Canyon." First, it struggles with an ancient watering system. Not new news, just news that the previous management couldn't deal with. And on the long list of truly-stupid-things-done, I give you Stone's Swamp, named after the last director. I refer to the intentional flooding of the driving range caused when Stone, no doubt cooperating with a developer, authorized the digging of a culvert through the parking lot, thereby channeling street water, which should have fallen off into the watershed, right onto the driving range, creating a small lake. Two years ago you could paddle canoe. Stone said that he didn't see the problem. After all, the range dried up by mid-July!
Oh, and don't overlook the inane job the Parks Department did last fall on the cart paths at "The Canyon." Instead of constructing curbs to control carts, they poured asphalt anywhere that the uncontrolled carts had been driving with the result that now we see asphalt paths where we don't want carts to drive anyway.
The past parks management's incompetence was, in a word, breathtaking.
In some ways the incoming director benefits from circumstances. He has money through the recently passed bond issue, he will work with new leadership on the Park Board, and will enjoy the support of a recently elected mayor who obviously understands what's at stake. That said, the Parks Department faces serious challenges. Morale has been dropping for several years. Strange appointments, which seem to have more to do with who-knows-who than who-can-do, have contributed to the malaise.
A word of caution: My dear wife, a woman who votes for all tax increases, almost didn't vote for the parks ballot item last November because she had no confidence that the Park Board and department wouldn't make an absolute mess of things, just as they have of our parks and courses over these past several years.
To our incoming parks director, I say, look at this as an opportunity.