Cheney Parks and Recreation Director Paul Simmons helped rebuild a community resource
When Cheney Parks and Recreation Director Paul Simmons arrived at his new office in the old Wren Pierson Building all he had was a chair, a desk, and a phone he found in a back closet. Furniture, however, was the least of his worries.
What concerned him were the weird, almost supernatural noises emanating all around him in his new digs. He quickly left the building and trekked to City Hall where he told deputy city clerk Keri MacDonald there were "creepy noises going on in that building."
Fortunately, MacDonald and others had an idea those creepy noises only meant the heat was on.
"I had never been around boilers or radiant heaters before," Simmons said in an interview last Thursday, about eight days before he departs Cheney to become the new Parks and Recreation Director for the city of Olympia.
It's somewhat fitting that heat was Simmons first concern. When the Central Washington University alumnus arrived at work April 4, 2004, the heat definitely was on the first-time director. It was the heat of resurrecting a department that had been shuttered for a year due to budget conflicts.
In 2003 the city was facing the perfect budget storm. Voters had approved two statewide initiatives that drastically reduced the amount of shared revenue municipalities counted on: I-695's $30 car tabs and I-747's limitation of yearly property tax increases to 1 percent.
Throw in a loss of a 12 percent utility tax and sales tax trimmed because of Bonanza Ford's move to Four Lakes, and Cheney's budget was facing a $700,000 to $800,000 hole – about the exact amount as the Parks and Recreation Department's budget. City and elected officials presented residents with a choice, pass a electrical and natural gas tax increase funding parks and recreation or close the department.
Voters shot down the measure with a 53 percent no vote – and the department shut down. After a season of no parks programs, and no pool, voters approved an electrical and natural gas business tax increase by a 58 percent margin in November to fund parks and recreation, and the department was back in business. Simmons, whose previous experience was supervisor roles at University Place and Federal Way, applied for the director position on the last day of the opening.
It wasn't his first application with the city of Cheney, having put his name in for a recreation coordinator position in 2001. Simmons wasn't hired, but his trip over reacquainted him with something he'd forgotten about his days in Ellensburg – the appeal of living in a small, college town. That experienced resurfaced in 2004.
"That's when I really discovered what Cheney was," Simmons said. "Besides, how many people get an opportunity at age 25 to walk in and start something from scratch."
Desk, chair, phone, creaking pipes meant Simmons was indeed starting from scratch. Former City Administrator Paul Schmidt gave his new director his first task – get the pool opened. Simmons had an aquatic background from his previous work, which helped him hire a staff and, working with Parks Supervisor Rick Engel, the water flowing in time for the pool's 40th anniversary celebration.
Simmons believed his first priority after the pool was to reestablish a relationship with the community. His first year he created a few recreation programs such as concerts at Sutton Park and an after school program.
Eventually he and staff created ECHO, Every Child Has Opportunities. Simmons said the before and after school program eventually served as the anchor for other programs the department developed in the same way major retail outlets often have an anchor store.
The program's child care component helped create a connection to the community as well as a connection to the school district. As the program became successful, Simmons expanded the model to other areas, focusing on a few new ventures every two years like Special Olympics, Star Theater as well as youth and adult sports.
Also created was CASLO, Cheney's Adventurous Summer Learning Opportunity. Simmons said the challenge was to make the spring and summer camps affordable while paying for the associated costs, and convincing parents the city wasn't make money on the dollars they were paying for summer programs.
"There are a lot of costs for supplies, snacks, transportation for field trips, instructors," Simmons said. Over time both ECHO, held at Betz, Salnave and Windsor elementary schools, and CASLO, at Wren Pierson, have grown into successful programs.
While creating new programs and beginning new seasons carry their own brands of anxiety, Simmons said there were a couple of times during his career he felt apprehensive about the future. The first was in 2005 when then mayor Amy Jo Sooy was defeated by Allen Gainer, who campaigned on a platform of replacing Schmidt as City Administrator. Schmidt left about nine months into Gainer's term, and Simmons said he feels neither he nor Sooy got enough credit for re-vitalizing the department.
"As much heat as those folks took, they were the ones who hired me, they were my mentors," Simmons said, adding former human resources administrator Diane Showalter proved to be valuable resource to him during this time.
The second time was in late 2009 after a bond vote to build a new community center at the recently acquired 50-acre Park on Betz Road failed to achieve a 60 percent supermajority, followed by the Wren Pierson roof collapsing in December under the weight of record snowfall. Simmons said newly elected and current Mayor Tom Trulove proved to be a steadying influence for him through regular meetings at his Eastern Washington University office.
"He righted the ship and said go, and here we are," Simmons said.
Eventually a new Wren Pierson was built through city funds and insurance money, the 50-acre Park was developed through a $500,000 federal grant Simmons won and a match with the school district by taking dirt it was hauling off to build their new Crunk's Field Sports Complex and moving it to the Betz Road park to bring it up to grade. The addition of Crunk's has also helped Parks and Recreation by providing more fields for its sports programs, programs Simmons said he was considering limiting because of lack of space.
"Even though that bond didn't pass we still accomplished the goals we set out to do," he said. "(Crunk's) allowed everybody to have a little more elbow room and field usage."
Simmons said there's still work to do at 50-acre Park, infrastructure for the ball fields as well as restrooms and parking, but the city has been given an extension to 2015 to accomplish the work.
Wren Pierson, summer and after school programs, Special Olympics, all of these things Simmons said he is hugely proud of taking place during his tenure, quickly crediting the work of staff and others for the accomplishments. The biggest thing he is proud of is something that, while not physically tangible, is just as important.
Simmons said when he talks to his colleagues around the state they are constantly telling him of their efforts to defend their departments and their budgets, which are typically on the chopping block when financial times are tight.
"I don't feel like that is here in Cheney," he said. "The community values and supports what we do. It's that sense I hope passes on (to his successor). When you have community support you can do anything. When that falls apart and crumbles, you're in trouble."
In Olympia, Simmons will have a little bit more than a desk and chair with a larger, already established department consisting of 35-40 employees and 1,000 acres of parks. It will come with its own heat since it's the state's capital, and has residents readily versed in the public process.
Like Cheney though, Simmons first priority remains the same.
"My biggest focus will be with staff and the community," he said.
John McCallum can be reached at email@example.com.