You don’t often hear someone say, “I like to spend my spare time at my workplace.” However, to Michael Biedenstein, that assertion makes perfect sense, especially when that place happens to be the St. Louis County Parks and Recreation Department. Biedenstein joined the Missouri-based agency in October 2014, where he serves as recreation events coordinator. As he puts it: “I’ve grown up in parks and it’s a natural fit.”
Parks & Recreation magazine caught up with Biedenstein to find out the most important lesson he’s learned, why special events are important for communities and what he likes to do when he’s not working.
Parks & Recreation: Why did you choose to enter the parks and recreation field?
Michael Biedenstein: I grew up in a household where parks and recreation was engrained in our lives. I played recreational soccer, swam on the local park and rec swim team in the summer, and participated in special events, like our local Greentree Festival, in the fall. What’s more, my dad has worked in the field as a landscape architect for his whole career, so I was lucky enough to tag along to see all his projects that he was working on throughout my childhood.
During high school, all my jobs pretty much [were] in parks and recreation. I helped on special events, particularly logistics — such as doing parking or taking admission fees. During my undergrad studies, I initially majored in chemistry and German. But when I decided that it wasn’t for me, my dad said, ‘You can do this parks and rec thing as a full-time job.’ I thought, ‘Yeah, I could do this as my full-time job.’ So, I switched majors and I guess the rest is history. Actually, I’m four weeks away from finishing my MBA.
P&R: What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned in your job?
Biedenstein: When it comes to special events, it’s not a matter of if something will go wrong — it’s a matter of when. Approaching it with that mindset, you don’t get rattled when the porta-potties aren’t there on time, or when the number of tickets gets oversold or when Santa forgets his beard during the Christmas event. It’s about maintaining a calm head. You really have to program enough special events in order to build that stomach for it and come to peace with the fact that something will eventually go wrong. It’s not about assigning blame; it’s about how we make this an uninterrupted experience for our customers. And then afterwards, let’s address the problem and ensure it doesn’t happen again. But in the moment, just stay calm and roll with it.
P&R: How do special events benefit a community?
Biedenstein: Special events have hard benefits and soft benefits. The hard benefits can easily be seen through the economic impact — whether it’s a movie in a park or a huge special event, like the Fourth of July. People will come to your community and probably stay in a hotel and spend money at local businesses. Park and recreation special events lead to a great deal of direct economic activity. And, I think what’s even more overlooked a lot of times are the soft benefits, which is about people reconnecting with neighbors and building a stronger sense of community. These face-to-face interactions couldn’t be more important in this digital world of Facebook and text messaging that we live in today.
P&R: Tell us one thing you enjoy doing in your spare time.
Biedenstein: We have 70-plus parks in the St. Louis County system. I really enjoy getting out into our parks with my wife and two wonderful kids — whether it’s checking out a new playground that my kids have never been to or just enjoying our miles and miles of trails. We get some exercise and the kids have a blast. There’s nothing much better than that.
Vitisia Paynich, Freelance Writer for Parks & Recreation magazine.