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St. Louis County Parks Director Lindsey Swanick reflects on career, looks to future

6:15 am on Fri, 04.27.12

As a 32-year veteran of the St. Louis County Parks Department, Lindsey Swanick has had a front-row seat to the changing recreation patterns of Missouri’s biggest county.

After St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley tapped her to be his parks director when he first took office, Swanick got a chance to lead a large department with a budget of $22.57 million. Most recently, her department got caught in an intense budget struggle between Dooley and the St. Louis County Council. She and her agency were thrust into the public spotlight.

Lesley Swanick
Lesley Swanick

Swanick announced earlier this year that she would be retiring April 30. Mac Scott, a spokesman for the county, said that assistant director Tom Ott would take over as acting director during the search for a permanent replacement. Swanick discussed her career and the challenges that face the parks system with the Beacon. The interview been edited for clarity and length.

You've been with the St. Louis County Parks Department for nearly three decades. What has changed the most? What has remained constant?

Swanick: When I started 32 year ago, we were still at the height of our growth. All the parks had been added, all the parks had been developed. The swimming pools were heavily used; we had 1,000 people a day at North County Recreation Complex pool. The ice rink was just packed. Since then, the demographics have changed. Many people have moved -- to St. Charles, St. Peters or Jefferson County. Urban sprawl and changing demographics have changed the recreational use.

Greensfelder cyclists
Greensfelder cyclists

We have over 100 miles of trails -- and trail use has just exploded (because of all the retired people who exercise). Exercise patterns, all the different types of exercise that people do now – from the gyms to step classes to kickboxing – all that changes all the time.

Basically what still remains the same is heavy use of our shelters and very, very popular playgrounds. Winter Wonderland just did its 26th year, and it’s still extremely popular. So some things have stayed the same.

When the controversy over the parks erupted last year, it highlighted how massive St. Louis County’s parks system has become. What are the biggest challenges in managing such an expansive department?

Swanick: When Prop P failed, we were forced with what money we did get in sales tax and revenue to do more non-revenue producing recreational activities: like trails, replacing our playgrounds and replacing our aging restrooms. We didn’t have the revenue flow to build the new, modern recreation complexes that you see in municipalities. That revenue source is not available to us.

We don’t have a large revenue stream that we produce ourselves outside of taxes. And the perception of the public – and I guess, rightfully so – is that some things should be free. So we have over 100 miles of trails that are free, but those trails require maintenance. Visitors would like a bathroom there – I mean, who wouldn’t after running on the trail, walking or bicycling? But they’re expensive to keep nice, clean and up to code.

So the big challenge is in the revenue, getting those kinds of recreational activities that increase revenue.

You’re correct that it’s a very diverse and large parks system. We try to a serve a municipal need in the unincorporated parts of the county, and we try to provide a diverse park system where we are surrounded by municipalities.

How much parkland is the public willing to pay to maintain and keep? I mean, they’re astounded when we say a new restroom will cost $300,000. We have to bring in the sewer, we have to bring in the utilities for the water, and we do bring in all the ADA components. We build it to last, it’s built of brick.  You’re also looking at $300,000 for a very nice playground.

There’s sticker shock, and we’ve really tried to educate the public. We try to spend the public dollar wisely and build things to last.

There are challenges in an aging workforce. I have people who have been working in the parks for 40 years. They have a lot of time off, they’re very, very experienced and a lot of them have institutional knowledge. They’re at the top of their pay range. And again, they have earned vacations; they take off. So if you hire a brand-new person who hasn’t accrued vacation yet and they’re at the beginning of their pay scale, you can get a lot more hours’ worth. But they’re lacking in the experience. 

Would you say last year’s budget fight was your most challenging time for the department? How did you and the department deal with all the increased attention?

Swanick: We dealt with it day to day. And we’re a very well-run department. The staff is dedicated. We try to budget correctly and do everything in a very law-abiding manner. So, if there was a spotlight on us, we were like "bring it on." If you can think of a better way to help us out, that would be great.

St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley talks to reporters about a potential ballot item that would raise sales taxes to assist parks around the region, including the Arch grounds.

We’ve already started the budget process for next year. The first thing you do is try to estimate or guesstimate your revenue. Well, we know now the North County pool is not going to be open. That revenue is not going to be coming in, but neither is the expense. So it’s all a balance. We’ve done an excellent job in the last couple of years estimating what fuel costs would be. So the spotlight on the budget really crystalized with the public that things can’t remain the same. We saw the support in the county council and in the papers, but what are they going to be willing to pay? Will they call their county councilmen and say, "Hey, we’re willing to pay more for our parks – what can we do?"

That has yet to be determined and we’re very hopeful about the proposal that is now in the House and the Senate in Jefferson City – the ArchRiver proposal. And as it stands, St. Louis County parks directly would get at least $6 million a year in sales tax.

Do you think it would be easier for that proposal to pass if funding for the Arch grounds weren’t included? Or do you think that makes it easier since the money improves a very visible landmark?

Swanick: As I go out and speak with people about it – which I am going to do when I’m retired -- I feel like I can do more outside of county government than I can. I can go out and say, "Please vote yes for this." 

I have a cute little saying: “Save our Arch, Save our Parks.” Or vice versa: “Save our Parks, Save our Arch.” It’s a win-win situation. We need to help the Arch; there’s a lot to be gained there. It is symbolic throughout the world of St. Louis. And we can’t expect the federal government to pay for everything. It would be a great construction project.

We do have to sell it to the public. [The Arch portion probably helps the proposal] probably 50-50. Again, many people in the city and in the county do think globally. They do think regionally.  And then there are those who really care about the park in their backyard.

What kind of advice do you have for your successor?

Swanick: Well, the county executive has selected Tom Ott, who is the deputy director for county parks, [to be acting director]. When I told everybody I was retiring, he came in and said. "Lindsey, you’ve been my longest boss of my entire career. I’ve worked for you for 13 years." So Tom and I have worked very closely. I’ve been mentoring him for the last two years. He’s very sharp, he’s very dedicated. He doesn’t know what a 40- hour work week is. So both of our work weeks are more like 50 or 60 hours – we live and breathe parks. And he will do a phenomenal job.

Map of St. Louis County Parks
Map of St. Louis County Parks


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