Cheney Parks and Recreation Director Paul Simmons said it’s always been his belief that it would take something “incredible” to get him to leave his position with the city that he’s held since 2004.
Apparently, the incredible happened last week. Simmons has accepted an offer to become the Director of Parks, Arts and Recreation at the city of Olympia, overseeing a full-time staff of 35-40 people, 1,000 acres of parkland and annual budget of $5.1 million.
It’s a far cry from Cheney’s four full-time staff, 40 acres of parks and $856,5000 annual budget.
“We’re talking a quantum leap here,” Cheney Mayor Tom Trulove said.
Simmons was selected for the $122,000 a year position after a two-month long, seven step national search process that yielded over 200 applicants. Simmons said his first thought when he heard about the position in August and decided to apply was that it was out of his league – something Trulove scoffed at.
“When I first heard he was going to apply, I knew he was going to get it,” he said.
It’s a well deserved accolade. Simmons was the city’s first Parks and Recreation director following the re-opening of a department that was closed for a year over city budgeting squabbles and a citizens no vote on a funding election. Voters approved a subsequent measure to finance the department through a utilities tax.
Learning quickly how to use grant funding, volunteers and interns from Eastern Washington University, Simmons augmented his budget to help bring new programs and quality resources to the city benefiting citizens and Cheney School District students. When it comes to accomplishments, Simmons is quick to shift accolades from himself to his department staff as well as other city officials and community supporters.
“I see it not as much about me as about the people I work with,” he said.
Simmons said one of the proudest moments of his tenure was how the city dealt with the collapse of the Wren Pierson Community Center’s roof during a large snowstorm in 2009. The department was relocated to temporary offices, including desks on the stage in City Hall auditorium, while insurance money and financing were created to rebuild Wren Pierson.
Simmons said Trulove and City Administrator Arlene Fisher played a huge part, as did Public Works Director Todd Ableman, Finance Director Cindy Niemeier and the Parks and Recreation staff, who developed the building’s concept.
Simmons also pointed to getting a $500,000 grant to develop the city’s 50-acre park on Betz Road as another achievement. He made an initial presentation on the grant in Moses Lake, and was “laughed out of the room,” creating a long drive home.
“I was saying to myself, ‘this will never happen again,’” Simmons said.
Simmons went on to get placed on several proposal review committees, learning firsthand a process that resulted in Cheney obtaining the grant in 2010.
“Paul was the first to understand if you want to do something in the city, you’ve got to be a player outside the city,” Trulove said.
Simmons will remain at Parks and Recreation until Nov. 8. Trulove said the city is going to move slowly to replace him, having existing staff continue to operate the department for now, with larger capital project decisions taking place with Trulove and Fisher.
Most of the programs run themselves, Trulove said, with the biggest issue being completion of the 50-acre park, which must be wrapped up by June 2015 as per conditions of the grant. Trulove said the city would begin searching for a new director in spring 2014.
Besides being a step up in pay and responsibility, the Olympia position puts Simmons closer to family he has in the Puget Sound area, something he said he is looking forward to being closer to now.
John McCallum can be reached at email@example.com.