Parks + Rec Associates Making Work Fun
A perfect cast spiraling across the glistening waters of Longview Lake. Squeals as children pet the team of oxen at Missouri Town. A group of golfers celebrating a spectacular birdie out of a bunker at Fred Arbanas Golf Course. Blue smoke wafting up from a barbecue grill at a campground. Runners sprinting along the path winding next to the Little Blue.
All the fun that makes a perfect day at Jackson County’s parks system takes a team of more than 200 dedicated associates to keep the Parks + Rec Department’s 21,000-plus acres beautiful and welcoming.
“Every division within the Parks + Rec Department plays a key role in creating a dynamic experience for our patrons,”said Director Michele Newman. “The Ranger Division keeps our parks safe, the Operations Division keeps them well-manicured, our Historic Sites and Kemper Outdoor provide history and outdoor education, and the Recreation Division, along with our Marinas, Golf Course, Registration, Campgrounds, and Trails bring the fun!”
As Superintendent of Park Operations, John Johnson is charged with keeping everything in the Parks running smoothly. Johnson oversees the Park operations division, which is responsible for the 300-plus structures and care and maintenance of the sprawling park system. This staff is responsible for overseeing both capital projects and the daily maintenance of the grounds.
Even in the winter months, the staff is busy gearing up for the spring.
“To get the parks ready every year we go through a process of some training for our associates on the equipment and safe practices,” he said. “We do a lot of inspections, including the playgrounds where we have our certified inspectors go through and we make those repairs if needed. We inspect all of our shelters and picnic tables, which are spread all throughout the parks system. We also do small things like replacing trash barrels.”
Keeping the parks clean and safe for patrons is essential.
“During these times we have some more thorough cleaning that we do for our shelters, restrooms and so forth because we have an added level of disinfectant for the hard surfaces of high touch surfaces,” Johnson said.
For Johnson one of the best things that the Parks Department provides is its marquee event. “One of the major things that we are deeply involved with is Christmas in the Park. So as we are starting to slow down a little bit from all of the other activities our associates at Longview are gearing up to build Christmas in the Park. That starts in late September and is an ongoing process. It takes from that time until the Wednesday before Thanksgiving to be ready to go.”
Registration Supervisor Jennifer Jackson sees her job as providing customer service and “making people’s day on a daily basis.”
The registration staff is charged with taking reservations for park facilities, selling permits and providing information to the public.
“We provide opportunities for people to make memories and that is my biggest thing when I start my day,” she said. “Every one of these reservations is not just a reservation, but it is somebody’s special event. Something they are going to remember and take back with them. We always have to remember when we are taking reservations that this is somebody’s big special event.”
Two of the associates who help people make their day in the parks are Assistant Golf Professional Chris Piedimonte and Historical Interpreter Linda Goin.
Piedimonte assists in day-to-day operations of the golf course by overseeing staff, reports, tee sheet management, merchandise and the driving range as well as giving golf lessons.
The course didn’t open until May 16 this year because of the Coronavirus pandemic, he said. “We’ve been very busy ever since and merchandise is selling better than expected.”
Goin who has worked at Missouri Town 1855 for 21 years is best known as The Livestock Lady. “I take care of the domestic livestock at Missouri Town, which includes the care and feeding, cleaning up after the oxen, mule, chickens, sheep, pigs and the cat. So I am responsible for their health and well-being as well as making sure visitors get to interact and learn with those animals in a safe and fun way.”
She has trained four teams of oxen. “We get the babies when they are about a week old, we hand feed them on a bottle so that they imprint on us and then we start their training at that very young age,” she said. “We also have a new mule here that hasn’t been here long. He came to us in March. He is a really friendly guy he is a big draft mule. This mule, Jack, lived on an Amish farm before he came to live with us.”
A squad of 20 rangers have the job of keeping everyone safe in the parks. But they need some extra help behind the scenes. One of the two people keeping them all going in the right direction is Jordin Mahnke, dispatcher and information services coordinator.
“I answer the phones, and see if there is a need for a ranger to be dispatched, take in the information and feel out the situation and then if needed I dispatch a ranger to that location,” she said.
Mahnke has also put her technical skills to use and manages and keeps iPads up to date as well as a lot of phones and the software rangers use for writing reports.
“On any given day I would say we probably get 7-10 calls for service and that could range from anything like a dead deer in the road to somebody being locked out of their vehicle or needing a jump start or even someone being lost on the trail,” Mahnke said.
Maps are popular requests.
“A lot of the people who actually come in to the office come in for maps,” she said, “so I can get anywhere from six to seven people come in but lately that number has gone down a bit because people are looking at our website a lot more and are able to get the maps from there. There are also a lot of people who come in looking for good fishing spots. I love to fish so I am able to tell them, I don’t tell them my spots, but I tell them some spots. We also have people come in asking how to get to different events going on in the parks.”
Many of the Parks + Rec associates have worked for the department for several years. Longview Marina Supervisor Dave Bass has been at his job for more than two decades. A part-time job blossomed into full-time fun.
“This is my second career in my life,” Bass said, “When I took this job 21 years ago I thought it was a part time job. When I first saw my schedule I thought oh my goodness there is 40 hours on there. I stuck with it anyway because I was looking for something to do so 21 years later I can’t make myself leave.”
The job was never easy, but the pandemic has created new and important tasks.
He said, “It’s a demanding job but at the end of the day it’s a very rewarding job because, it is kind of like painting a house you can look back and see that you have accomplished something. A lot of people think that all we do is ride around on the lake or look out the window all day. We have to make sure that the store is full, make sure the employees are doing what they need to do, make sure the boats are 100 percent correct and now with the new rules we have to make sure that the boats are not only clean and ready to go mechanically but also we have to have them sterilized, which is quite a process.”
In the years that Bass has been at the marina he has seen business grow from close to $100,000 a year to now over a half million dollars. “The revenue has increased a lot because of the fact that we started talking to people to see what they wanted in the store and started stocking the store with things that would actually sell. Also we started using more customer service that had not been done before. Now customer service is number one and I think that is what makes your business grow. If you are nice to someone they are more apt to come back and bring someone with them.”
Business at Longview Marina has also grown because of the addition of some special events such as boat rides, Pirate Cruises and birthday parties. The birthday parties are a big hit. The marina also hosts some corporate events and educational programs for schools, he said.
“Probably one of the most rewarding things I have ever done is work for this parks system,” Bass said. “At the bottom of the day it is just a lot of fun and it is a great hobby that you get paid for.”