I Have to Ask: Parks and Recreation

Posted on May 6, 2019

Matt Roylance

In this series, guest columnists respond to one of three topics selected by ELGL co-founder Kent Wyatt. This week, Matt Roylance, Assistant Town Manager, Town of Garner, writes about what he learned as the Deputy Director of Parks, Recreation and Open Space.

I know a lot of us in local government get (and make) jokes about the Parks and Rec TV show. Hey, it’s a foundational element of ELGL! And honestly, I never thought I would get tired of that until I spent nearly five years working in a local government Parks and Rec department. I now understand how cops and doctors must feel about all those other TV shows!

While that is one thing I learned in my job as Deputy Director of Parks, Recreation and Open Space, there are three other things that are far more valuable.

There is No One Ideal Career Path

When I left graduate school with an MPA almost 20 years ago (gulp!), I didn’t start out thinking I wanted a job in Parks and Rec. I started out as a budget analyst and was hoping to be a city manager – a pretty traditional career path. Those seven years as a budget analyst provided a valuable foundation I still draw on to this day. But my desire for different types of management experience led me to look for opportunities in a front-line department, like Parks, Recreation, and Open Space. You could look at this as a detour on my career path – it doesn’t seem likely to lead directly to a job as a manger or assistant manager. But in hindsight I think the couple career detours I’ve taken provided the mix of experiences that made me an ideal candidate for my current job as Assistant Town Manager for Operations. A job I’m not sure I would have gotten if I had stuck with the traditional career path. I always tell people not to be too narrowly focused on one career path – there are a lot of ways to get where you want to go. If you see an opportunity where you can learn from a great supervisor in a well-respected organization, don’t be afraid to take it. I guarantee you will learn something valuable!

Real Estate and Project Management

I was lucky enough to work in a park system that was acquiring property and developing new parks. Therefore, I got to be a real estate guy, and a land planner, and a project manager. Well, in fairness, I was fortunate to work in an organization that had other staff (and consultants) that did most of the heavy lifting. But I was far more involved in real estate development than I ever would have guessed when I took the job. I learned about:

  • How to evaluate and select properties
  • What motivates people to sell their land to government instead of a private developer
  • Surveys, appraisals, and environmental site assessments
  • Closing costs, attorneys, and prorated taxes
  • Selecting and working with a design team of landscape architects and engineers
  • Hosting community meetings to get feedback on designs
  • Planning grand opening events

The knowledge and skills I gained doing that kind of work are surprisingly transferable and I use them routinely in my current job. Want to build a new town hall or fire station? You’re probably going to follow a similar process. Want to better understand what’s going on with all those council agenda items from the Planning Department? Mission accomplished. Need to develop a process to evaluate and select a consultant? No problem.

Parks = Quality of Life = Economic Development

Therefore, by the transitive property of local government bureaucracy, parks = economic development. This is one of those lessons that, in hindsight, is obvious but I never spent much time thinking about how strong the connection is until working in a parks department. Many companies don’t have geographic constraints, so they can locate wherever they want. If a company is not concerned about siting a factory near an interstate with a rail spur to the property, it can place more emphasis on where the employees would like to live. Things like the ability to take a break at lunch and ride your mountain bike, to find high quality and affordable activities for your children, or to attend a concert at the performing arts center are increasingly important factors in economic development decisions. So now when I think about parks and rec programs and facilities, I think about how they can meet the needs of current residents and the residents the community wants to attract. Fortunately, the needs of those two groups are often compatible.

Sometimes a job teaches you a specific set of skills. Sometimes it changes your perspective. I was lucky to experience both during my time as the Deputy Director of Parks, Recreation and Open Space and I draw on that experience daily now that I am an Assistant Town Manager.

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