July 11, 2018 10:49:53 AM
Alex Holloway - [email protected]
Starkville aldermen are set to hire a new parks director after interviewing four candidates for most of Tuesday afternoon.
The city is searching for a new director of the Parks and Recreation Department after former director Herman Peters was fired at the beginning of the year and arrested for his suspected role in embezzling more than $21,000 between January 2015 and January 2017. Three other parks and recreation employees were also fired for embezzling in the same time frame.
Four candidates, including current interim parks director Gerry Logan, were selected for Tuesday's interviews. Aldermen also interviewed Reginald Burton, of Merrillville, Indiana; Edward Smith, of Jackson, Tennessee; and Digby Whyte, of Bordeaux, France.
Whoever the city selects as its next parks director will likely have to oversee major growth for the department as the city continues to look toward building a major tournament-ready recreation facility.
During Smith's interview, Mayor Lynn Spruill said she's looking for someone who can help Starkville set the bar as a recreation destination city.
"I think I'm looking for the person who takes us into the next decade, 20 years, and makes us the best recreation facility in the state," Spruill said. "Somewhere that is a place that we point to, a place that we can be proud of for both our residents and those who come to visit us. We try to be a destination city, and so people coming to visit us is a large point of who we are and who we want to be."
Burton is the current operations manager for the University of Notre Dame. He's held that position since 2015. Before that, he's served as the director of parks and recreation for the city of Lake Station, Indiana, and as park supervisor for the Chicago Park District.
When asked about fundraising, which was a major part of all candidate interviews on Tuesday, Burton said he believes good fundraising efforts start with being a visible part of the community.
"I think that's where anything starts," he said. "From there, obviously just creating good partnerships."
During his interview, Burton said he would focus on keeping costs down for youth programs to offer as much accessibility as possible. He also said the department could look into expanding programs for adults and seniors.
Burton also said he believes Starkville's parks could use some beautification.
"If the parks aren't beautified, no one wants to come," he said. "There's no use building something new if you can't take care of the old. First and foremost that's what I noticed."
Logan, the director of sports and recreation for Starkville parks and recreation, has held the interim director position since aldermen placed Peters on unpaid leave in late December. He's also previously worked as a special events supervisor in College Station, Texas.
Logan said he has experience with fundraising, though looking for the millions of dollars needed to help build a new tournament facility would be new. He also highlighted partnerships he's helped to build with the Starkville Oktibbeha Consolidated School District for the use of school recreational facilities to offer new programing for the summer, and with local groups like Starkville in Motion or the county NAACP chapter to help with clean-up efforts in parks.
Beyond building a new facility, Logan said he'd like to help Starkville parks and recreation become a Commission for Accreditation of Parks and Recreation Agencies (CAPRA) certified department.
He said Starkville should look for ways to make itself unique in the recreation landscape, rather than just following what other cities have done. There are multiple ways to do that, he said, from the number of fields at a facility or using synthetic turf, to building a facility with ease of access from one of its amenities to the other in mind.
"Starkville can be unparalleled in the state and the region," he said. "I truly believe in the potential of this city. We are in a great position, geographically and within the state in general, to succeed. We've seen, in just a short time, the passion that people have for the city and the fact that they want to be here and that they will spend money to be here."
Smith is the director of parks and recreation for Madison County, Tennessee. He's worked in similar roles for Mt. Holly, North Carolina, and Gwinnett County, Georgia.
Smith, a Mississippi State University alumnus, said he purchased a home in Starkville last year. He said he's kept an eye on the work going on at the city's parks and called the progress made in improving J.L. King Park "night and day."
He said that, while the goal for parks and recreation in and of itself may not be only to make money, a good department can be a major economic benefit to its community.
"If it's done correctly it can be a driving force economically to bring tournaments in to your hotels, restaurants, things like that," Smith said. "Also parks and recreation is, I think, a very determining factor for people wanting to relocate to your area, move to your area and bringing businesses in. They look at your parks, at your school systems, at your public service and your quality of life issues."
In working to improve Starkville's parks, Smith said he'd look to conduct surveys of the community to get a feel for what the community wants.
"What Ed Smith thinks they may need and what they may want may not be what the public wants," he said.
Whyte, is the chief executive for the International Federation of Parks and Recreation for World Urban Parks.
When asked about why he looked to the Starkville job, Whyte said he's finishing his executive contract with World Urban Parks. He said he'd like to turn to a long-term project to undertake. Starkville, he said, which is eyeing a major parks and recreation project, is the right place for that.
"It's a city that, really, is about the size that you can get your head around what the entire city is trying to do and create together," he said.
Whyte said he has experience with fundraising.
He also said Starkville could consider a multi-purpose facility, both for handling tournament events and providing a space for regular recreation for citizens.
"I think when possible you look to multi-purpose facilities so that they've got the capacity for a high-level tournament," he said. "In between, you can utilize that if you've still got major local needs."