Where Does East Lansing Parks & Rec Stand, as Search for New Director Begins?

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The Hannah Community Center of East Lansing as seen from Abbot Road.

The City of East Lansing is beginning its search to fill the vacancy that will be left by Department of Parks, Recreation, and Arts Director Tim McCaffrey’s upcoming retirement, and at his last meeting with the Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission on May 19, there was discussion of the search for his replacement, how East Lansing parks stack up against those in other communities, and a contamination at the Hannah Community Center pool, among other things.

Who will replace Tim McCaffrey as Director of Parks & Rec?

The call for applications to find someone to fill McCaffrey’s position will be posted next week, said City Manager George Lahanas at the May 19 meeting, but Assistant Director Wendy Wilmers Longpre will work as Acting Director until the position is filled.

The City established its Parks & Rec department about 20 years ago, said Lahanas at the meeting, and McCaffrey has been the only director during that time.

At the meeting, Lahanas explained the search process to the commissioners, saying that he personally hires for all director-level positions, since those individuals report directly to him. After reviewing applications, an interview team will meet with the candidates selected. The interview team will consist of Lahanas, a representative from Parks & Rec (most likely Wilmers Longpre), and other department directors (most likely from the Department of Public Works, the Finance Department, and one other.)

Lahanas said the City plans to post the call for applications on the City’s website, social media, LinkedIn, the websites of statewide and national associations, and the Michigan Municipal League. Commission Chair Pam Weil recommended McCaffrey and Wilmers Longpre encourage people who they think would be good candidates to apply. The size and quality of the candidate pool will determine how many applicants are invited for interviews.

Those selected for interviews will have informal conversations with other senior City staff, several members of the Parks & Rec Commission, and perhaps several members of City Council, if Council is interested, Lanahas said. The number of commissioners present will be limited so that quorum is not reached – because that would require a public meeting under Michigan’s Open Meetings Act – and those present will send their impressions of the candidates in writing to Lahanas to help inform his decision.

At the May 19 meeting, commissioners provided Lahanas with the qualities and experiences they believe a new director should have. Weil pointed out that the new director will be asked to balance capital needs, such as funding and ground maintenance, with a robust offering of activities.

She further emphasized that Parks & Rec, which includes the Hannah Community Center, is often the main form of interaction that people have with the City. Commissioner Chuck Overbey followed up saying that a director should understand that Parks & Rec is about fun and provides for the surrounding community, too, not solely for East Lansing residents.

Commissioner Alex Smith said that he thinks that Lahanas should prioritize consideration of diversity, equity, and inclusion and finding a director who understands the nuances of a college town. Commissioner Adam DeLay said the search committee should look closely at the positions previously held by candidates to make sure they have the skillset to accomplish all that the City will ask of them.

At this, his last meeting, McCaffrey presented on benchmarking, or the question of how East Lansing’s Parks & Rec offerings compare to other cities across the nation.

McCaffrey introduced the benchmarking system, saying that the National Parks and Recreation Association collects data from departments around the country, and the City’s Parks & Rec department had generated reports for the last three years to see how it compares to others. (The full presentation is available here.)

In the data, East Lansing is grouped with other areas with populations ranging from 20,000 to 49,999, placing the city in the upper limit of this bracket. Because East Lansing is quite close to the upper end of that range, McCaffrey cautioned against using the data as an evaluation tool.

Compared to other areas within the same bracket, East Lansing has fewer acres of park land per resident and fewer miles of trail than the median. While the median for Parks & Rec departments in comparable cities was 31.4 fulltime employees, East Lansing has about 42 when the groundskeepers from DPW are includes.

A runner taking advantage of warm weather on East Lansing’s Northern Tier Trail.

Weil and McCaffrey pointed out that this was due to activities offered, such as before-and-after school programs, and the Family Aquatic Center. (The aquatic center hires part-time employees, but those lines are considered when determining how that it all adds up in terms of FTE, or “fulltime equivalent.”)

While East Lansing is above the median for expenditures – $5 million compared to $3.2 million – its expenditure per capita is much closer to the median, $104 compared to $100 respectively.

Compared to the median, East Lansing’s Parks & Rec receives less money from the City’s General Fund. Just 46% of East Lansing’s Parks & Rec budget comes from the General Fund, compared to 60% nationally. East Lansing relies much more on grant money and user fees.

At the meeting, Commissioners debated whether relying so heavily on fees was the most equitable approach. Weil said she found the prices fair, and Overbey pointed out that they are often far below fees charged by private companies for comparable recreational activities and facilities.

DeLay suggested offering a tiered-fee system based on income levels, saying that lowering the floor for prices might eliminate barriers and lead to more users paying overall. Weil also pitched the idea of pursuing grants to offer scholarships for those interested in taking classes at the Hannah Community Center for example, saying that even a lower price might be prohibitive to some.

McCaffrey shared other updates, including an issue with the pool at the Hannah Center.

During the Director’s update, McCaffrey said that glycol, an antifreeze agent used in some of the cooling systems at the Hannah Community Center, had accidentally entered the pool there on May 19.

Alice Dreger for ELi

The pool at the Hannah Community Center in East Lansing.

Overbey had been in the pool at the time and said that something looking like a dust cloud became visible in the pool. He credited the lifeguards and other staff for quickly getting patrons out of the pool and making the decision to close the pool for a few days.

McCaffrey said only trace amounts of glycol had been detected, but the pool will be drained and the system flushed before swimmers are allowed back in.

At the June meeting, commissioners are expected to hear more about the possibility of bringing food trucks into city parks this summer.

According to DeLay, the application to put a historical marker to honor the legacy of Dr. Green, an East Lansing resident and local Civil Rights activist, has been submitted.

Following up on a suggestion made by Commissioner Nichole Biber, the City is considering creating a pollinator garden in conjunction with a garden to collect rain water.

At the meeting, Wilmers Longpre also presented on progress made on capital projects. The presentation is available here.

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