When municipal leaders talk about amenities and quality of life in their cities and towns, the discussion often turns to parks, recreation and green spaces.
Keeping those features clean and well-kept while keeping programs running smoothly is the job of the parks and recreation department. These departments take pride in the beautification of community spaces and the recreation opportunities they offer.
City of Easley Parks and Recreation Director Gregg Powell. Photo: City of Easley.
Gregg Powell, the parks and recreation director in Easley, has made the department his life's work — literally. He was born and raised in the city, played three sports at Easley High School and played American Legion baseball on the Easley fields. He started working in the parks department as a summer playground director while he was in college, and for the most part has been with Easley's Parks and Recreation Department since. He was named director in 1989.
During his time, the department's staff of five full-time workers has grown to 20 full-time and 50 part-time employees. While Powell said his job responsibilities have changed quite a bit, the mission of the parks and recreation department stays the same — to provide sports and recreation opportunities for residents and visitors, and keeping the city's parks and green spaces clean and welcoming.
"In 1996, we bought the land to build our own recreation complex," Powell said. "It's the best thing the City of Easley has ever done for our city. It's a tremendous complex. This is one of the first places the mayor will bring a family to see what the City of Easley offers."
Easley's parks have about 100 events a year, including about 80 sports tournaments. The city's parks have hosted the youth Big League World Series, college tournaments and recreational baseball leagues.
Along with running sports operations, parks and recreation departments often keep up the grounds at parks and green spaces, making sure they are safe and accessible for locals and visitors. Easley maintains its part of the Doodle Trail, which it shares with the City of Pickens.
The trail is named for an old railroad route that ran through textile mills. The cities bought the rail line rights of way to create an 8-mile trail for walkers, runners and cyclists.
"The main object was to get people moving and exercising and to bring people to downtown," Powell said. "We take care of 4 miles of the trail, and Pickens meets us halfway. Last year we opened the Doodle Park with a playground and a picnic shelter. We even have two refurbished train cars we've converted into our bathrooms."
The City of Walterboro's parks department has five full-time maintenance workers, a park superintendent and Ryan McLeod as parks director. They oversee five parks with playground equipment, landscaping and managed turf. One of the parks has a small pond and a paved trail. The department also oversees a tennis center and is responsible for the 600-acre Walterboro Wildlife Sanctuary and its 4 miles of walking trails. The sanctuary offers boardwalks, bridges, and bike and walking trails that provide an up-close view of the Lowcountry wildlife and vegetation.
City of Walterboro Parks Director Ryan McLeod. Photo: City of Walterboro.
"We attempt to blow the walking paths and boardwalks roughly three times a week. This allows us to regularly assess the conditions. With the recent flooding over the past couple of years, we have seen some small areas of erosion and are generally able to correct the issue before it becomes more serious," McLeod said. "We pay close attention to tree health of those lining the walking path. We try to identify fall risk and remove them if deemed necessary."
The Walterboro Wildlife Discovery Center will open later this summer, offering visitors an interpretive exhibition hall illustrating the essential role swamps play in the Lowcountry.
McLeod is new to the job in Walterboro, having previously worked as an assistant superintendent at a golf club. He starts his day early around 6:30 a.m., touching base with the crew in the maintenance shop before starting on work in his office, including his role as administrator of the Tree Protection Committee. The City of Walterboro requires a permit to remove trees from private property once the trees have grown to a certain diameter.
"For me personally, being away from the 'dirty' work has been a challenge," he said. "In my previous line of work, I was always there with the crew and working on the front line. My responsibilities are different now. I am adjusting and trying to manage my time to ensure I can be out there with the crew when possible. I now always have a change of 'work clothes' for when the opportunity to get dirty arises."
Russell Haltiwanger, the director of parks and recreation in Fountain Inn, played professional baseball before he started with the department part-time while he finished his college degree. A pitcher at Newberry College, he played five years in the minor leagues after being drafted by the Cincinnati Reds after his junior year of college. He has worked several jobs in the parks and recreation department since then and became director in 2016.
City of Fountain Inn Parks and Recreation Director Russell Haltiwanger. Photo: City of Fountain Inn.
The department has four full-time employees and a few part-time workers. It runs a senior adult program in the gym each weekday, serving 300 to 400 seniors each week with exercise classes, a weight room and other rooms for recreational activities such as crafts and games. The department also maintains 50 acres of parks, three portions of the Swamp Rabbit Trail and two baseball fields for 450 little league players. Big changes are coming to Fountain Inn with the addition of a newly renovated Woodside Park next year.
The new park will feature three baseball/softball fields in a cloverleaf pattern with a central press box, top-of-the-line playground equipment, a multipurpose field and a Miracle League field for players with special needs.
Running parks and recreation departments doesn't come without challenges — particularly finding the right staff and volunteers to keep up with the programs.
"The number-one problem most recreation departments have is parental problems and coaches who want to win at all costs," Powell said. "We want the kids to have a positive experience through the recreation department. Our athletic department does a good job screening and training and getting the best people to coach. We want it to be a place where the kids will continue to grow and they'll come back someday and be a coach themselves."
McLeod said maintaining a workforce will always be a challenge for parks departments.
"It is my responsibility to retain quality workers when other companies, like local landscapers, offer more money," he said. "Allowing the crew to take ownership, provide insight and feel comfortable enough to discuss how they may do something differently is key to building a trusting and longstanding crew."