Director, Tulsa Park & Recreation Department
Date: Feb. 9 Time: 11:30 a.m. Place: Eloté Café
Now and then, writing this column becomes a perfect excuse to reconnect with old friends. Nancy Atwater and I have known each other since our days at The University of Tulsa and beyond as we stayed in Tulsa to form lives and careers.
Although she has two degrees in recreation and first worked in the Tulsa Parks system, she’s also spent half her career in fund raising and nonprofit leadership. Last year she’d closed a consulting business she’d run since 1992 when a friend e-mailed her about the opening for the park director’s job. At first, she was reluctant to get back into the fray, but the work perfectly melded her past lives. After some prodding by Susan Neal, the mayor’s community development director, inevitably Atwater concluded it wasn’t retirement she craved, but a new challenge. She’s found one.
When we lunched, she’d been on the job six months and was a few days away from starting to work with a consultant on a new Park Master Plan, an idea she credits to board member Margie Warren. The last plan is 30 years old. Definitely time for an update.
Concurrently, the department is “getting ready to roll out Park Friends in a big way,” she says. When she arrived, the money-raising entity wasn’t computerized and had no donor database, she tells me. That’s changed. And with good reason. Today, both public and private money are needed to provide the scope of recreational and community programs citizens want and need.
For one thing, a number of community center facilities have outlived their usefulness or are in need of an upgrade. One is the 40-year-old Olympic-sized McClure pool, which would require a $3 million renovation just to make it properly operational, but not “sexy,” she says. That could mean another $7 million. And the so-called junior pools that provided swim lessons for so many kids are no longer affordable or as useful as municipal pools. One problem: not enough lifeguards. Additionally, families are more interested in self-directed activities that water playgrounds provide. Punch a button to turn on the water: instant fun, with minimal staffing.
Parks and recreation centers have always been about serving the public, but the role they play is even more important as working families seek out summer day camps with pre- and after-care, and strapped schools ask for help to engage students. The Park Department not only provides programming at community centers but also is moving toward providing after-school activities for elementary and middle schools. Atwater believes a young person who falls out of the education system can be brought back through recreation, whether it’s rock climbing or skateboarding, because these activities provide structure and make learning fun. And can stop crime at the front end. For the 37K it takes to incarcerate a young person, park programs could turn out “18 self-adjusted, confident, motivated, educated kids,” she says.
The new master plan will tell the tale — where we’re heading, why we are heading there. It should be ready by September. I look forward to seeing what my old friend does with it.