Reflections on Working in Different Park Systems

June 1, 2014, Department, by Judy Weiss, CPRE

Judy Weiss, CPRE, the director of Arizona’s Coconino County Parks and Recreation, shares her perspective on working in large and small park systems.If retirement is the light at the end of the tunnel, I can see a dust-sized particle. In other words, I have been in the profession for a while (more than three decades). But, I still look forward to going to work each day. Why? It’s because of the people I work with, the organization I work for and the community I serve. I landed in a great place.

I worked for 28 years in one place — a city in metro Phoenix. When I started, it had a population of 80,000 and was about 62 square miles. When I departed, it had a population of 235,000 and 186 square miles. That time was a period of growth and innovation combined with unparalleled leadership that shaped my professional future. I was given the freedom to take risks and try new things, and I took advantage of every opportunity. I became the park and recreation director and earned my management chops through the experience of working there. I got lucky with my first real job. 

With my next adventure, it was important to me to look to a place that would add to my professional acumen. I chose what I eventually termed “oppositeland:” a large urban border city in Texas — a city with one of the lowest socioeconomic demographics in the country. I was immersed in a different environment and a transitioning organizational culture. A switch four years earlier from a strong mayor to council-manager reflected why there had been 20 different park and recreation directors in the last 35 years. While the staff was professional, they were dazed and confused and suffered from too much change, a lack of direction and little attention. I hope that in my short time there, I was able to mentor them, institute some values, and show them that having a vision for the community and a love of their chosen profession can make all of the difference in serving the community.

Now, I am back in Arizona — it’s home. But it’s yet another place that adds to my experience. It is a vast, rural county rather than an urban city. And, unbelievably in Arizona, it snows here — a lot. It makes park and recreation operations very different for someone who has spent her entire career in the desert. Best of all, the organization is smaller, more nimble and interested in new ways to achieve important and well-defined goals. Leadership will consider anything. To me, this is the most important attribute that an organization can have, and having experienced it early in my career, I know this single value allows amazing things to happen.

No matter where I have landed, I have worked with the best people on Earth. It is a common theme that park and recreation professionals, at whatever level, are passionate, fun, creative and dedicated to serving their community. We are willing to share information and are proud of what we do. 

At this point, I struggle with being “old school.” I would submit that there are good things about that — a sense of what’s right, a depth of experience, and the use of history and well-developed intuition that helps navigate today’s political environment. I also don’t have the trait of resting on laurels or coasting into retirement — which is good when you are trying to avoid the bad parts of the “old school.”

My challenge now is patience. Glaciers sometimes melt faster than government moves. So, when something happens relatively expeditiously, we celebrate! It’s so sweet — and so rare. I counsel younger staff on this issue in terms of career mobility as well. Be patient, work hard and think twice before you say no to an opportunity to gain a new experience. 

And, if you find a good organization, a good place to be, and you are successful, muster all of your patience and position yourself to be the one chosen for the next opportunity. It will happen. It has for me, and I am so honored to be a part of this very special profession. 

Judy Weiss, CPRE, is the Director of Coconino County Parks and Recreation in Arizona.