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Parks and Recreation Director David Gill talks business

David Gill, director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, laughs as Landon Sartorelli, 4, says he wants to sign up for all the sports during the Youth Spring Sports League Registration Fair on Saturday afternoon, February 8, 2014 at the Heights Community Center.

(JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)

David Gill, director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, laughs as Landon Sartorelli, 4, says he wants to sign up for all the sports during the Youth Spring Sports League Registration Fair on Saturday afternoon, February 8, 2014 at the Heights Community Center. (JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)

David Gill uses terms like “customer service,” even as the conversation moves to children’s sports leagues. He explains his ideas to “improve the operation” when he talks about the scope of a department that runs all the city’s community centers, parks and cemeteries.

Gill speaks with a businessman’s vocabulary, and his words hint at the way he approaches his position as the director of the Concord Parks and Recreation Department.

And as the city council prioritizes a new community center on the Heights and the Beaver Meadow Golf Course is finally back in the black, Gill talks like a businessman because he has to make his department’s dollars work like he is one.

“So you’re in the business of being good stewards of public money, you’re in the business of having employees and training them,” Gill said of his job. “But also you need to listen to what your customers want, and the customers are the 42,000 people of Concord. . . . We’re in the business of recreation.”

In 2011, the city council tapped Gill, then recreation director, to lead a reorganized parks and recreation operation that brought all the city’s cemeteries, recreation facilities and programming, the Beaver Meadow Golf Course, and the city auditorium under one roof. City Manager Tom Aspell said Gill’s job has expanded to oversee a wide range of responsibilities.

“How do you make all that work together?” Aspell said.

Finding a way

Gill walked through the halls of the Heights Community Center

last week, pointing to the former Dame School’s classrooms and the brown tiles on the walls that have been there since the 1940s. The old elementary school is now the office for the parks and recreation department as well as a home for preschool classes and bingo games.

Someday, this facility could be rebuilt as an $11 million, 81,000-square-foot building to house more community events, a new gym and expanded recreation programming – if the Concord City Council decides the city can pay for it.

Earlier this week, the council identified the community center as one of its priority projects in the next year. Should the council decide to proceed with it, construction is scheduled for fiscal year 2016. The council has already set aside money for a partial design of the new community center, Aspell said, and it will have to vote on whether to set aside about $800,000 for a full design in the 2015 budget.

“I think going forward, there’s going to be the challenge of how do you fund some of the capital projects that are coming down the pike,” Gill said. “I think everybody understands the city has a plan for a new community center. How does the city fund it? How does the city support it? Is it a public-private partnership? Do we fundraise?”

Recreation isn’t a new trade for Gill – it runs in his family. Gill’s father served in the U.S. Navy, and he grew up on a military base in Dunoon, Scotland. During those 15 years of his childhood, Gill’s mother was involved in recreation programming on the base. When he came back to the United States, he earned a degree in parks and recreation from the University of Maine.

Now 46, Gill started working in Concord’s recreation department in 1998.

“It was in my blood growing up as a kid, and I stayed in it,” he said.

DJ Sartwell joined the department in 1983, when its office handled only recreation programming. Its office was in White Park, in a little brown building with yellow shutters and an American flag in the corner – “New England quaint,” she called it.

She’s seen that quaint office weather 30 years of changes, reorganization and staff cuts. Less than two years away from her retirement, Sartwell said Gill has been one of the most proactive department heads she has known.

“One of the things that I really, really like about him is that he finds a way,” Sartwell said. “That’s really refreshing. I’ve worked with people over the years, it doesn’t matter what you ask them because, no, we don’t have the staff or the money.”

For example, a member of Gill’s staff helped find a solution where taxpayer dollars did not exist to fix the Old North Cemetery fence in 2012. Praxair, a Concord-based company focusing on thermal spray solutions, donated hours of work to fixing the fence, which would have cost the city about $50,000.

And even though he doesn’t have the money to build a new $800,000 multipurpose facility at White Park, for example, Gill has found a way to pay for design and planning on that project. The Black Ice Pond Hockey Association has donated nearly $30,000 to the department since 2010 to maintain Concord’s parks and plan for the new building.

President Chris Brown said the association raised more than $30,000 at this year’s tournament, and part of that is expected to be earmarked for the new facility in White Park as well.

“I think that there’s a hesitation from a lot of people to get involved with the city,” he said. “It’s like a bad word at times. I have not found that in this particular case.”

Public-private partnerships like the relationship between Gill’s department and Black Ice are “the way of the future,” Brown said.

“He’s been really forward-thinking as far as that,” Brown said of Gill.

Finding the money

Gill is in the process of writing his roughly $1.5 million department budget for the next fiscal year – but he also oversees the Beaver Meadow Golf Course, which operates under a separate enterprise fund of nearly $1 million.

The course is owned by the city, but for many years its golf shop was operated by contracted golf pro Ed Deshaies. The course came under Gill’s department with the 2011 reorganization – and he then reorganized the golf course staff in 2012. The city took over the pro shop because the course was in the red and had lost $64,000 in fiscal 2011 and $53,000 in fiscal 2012, according to city records. The city council has transferred roughly $30,000 from the general fund, which relies on tax revenue, to the golf course fund in each of fiscal 2013 and 2014.

In both years since the city’s takeover, with the help of infusion of city money, Beaver Meadow has covered its expenses and turned a profit of a few thousand dollars.

“We decided to take that business in-house because we wanted to make that money ourselves,” Gill said.

But Deshaies lost his shop with that move by the city, and Gill’s decision to take over drew fire from some members even though it was approved by the city council. Concord resident Richard Howe, 66, said he refused to renew his membership at Beaver Meadow when the city eliminated the position Deshaies held for three decades.

“All the money that the pro made selling clubs and all that now goes to the city,” Howe said. “The city wanted that money, is what it comes down to.”

Without Deshaies in charge, Howe said the pro shop’s policies have changed – for example, he and his wife couldn’t test out clubs before buying them. He and many others were vocal and spoke out against the city’s decision, he said, but the parks and recreation department took over the course just as it planned.

“The city just doesn’t have a clue,” Howe said. “The city just wanted to take the money. . . . Anybody who plays golf there is not getting the full benefit of the pro.”

Deshaies returned to the course to teach lessons in 2013. He could not be reached for comment.

In addition to keeping the golf course afloat financially, Gill said he wants players to have a positive experience.

“I can’t control anybody’s golf game, but hopefully everything else is good,” Gill said.

Finding fun

As Sartwell describes her boss’s message to his staff, she uses his words.

“Especially in recreation, we have to be a better sell and brand the department in a different way” than in years past, she said.

But beyond the business operations of the department and its capital plans, she and Gill both said they work toward a certain quality of life for Concord residents.

“We make fun, I think, for the citizens of Concord,” Sartwell said.

Gill will keep looking for ways to make it work, keeping the parks free and the youth sports programs running, searching for volunteers and donors, he said.

In the meantime, the department offers a simple product for its customers.

“Just go outside and play,” Gill said.

(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or mdoyle@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)

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