Politics & Government

New parks chief talks about the future, equity in parks and dreams on the East Side

Shon Sylvia
Shon Sylvia

In the coming year, Metro Parks Tacoma will break ground on the new Eastside Community Center, make improvements at Owen Beach, and plan for a more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly future at Point Defiance Park.

Leading that work will be new executive director Shon Sylvia, who has worked for Metro Parks in management roles for 20 years and replaced longtime parks chief Jack C. Wilson last month. Sylvia says he wants to bring more programs and services directly to schools, and make Metro Parks staff more reflective of the communities they serve.

Sylvia sat down with The News Tribune last month to talk about some of the projects underway, what he loves about Tacoma and his vision. Here are some highlights.

Q: So you’re enjoying the new gig?

A: I love it.

Q: What do you love about it?

A: I love the people. I love that if you take care of the people, then they take care of community. I love how much ... we have a role to play outside of just parks and recreation. We have a role to play in education. How do we keep kids healthy? How do we keep them safe?

When you look at all the community, I think we have a really great piece of building this community, so that’s what I think is the greatest part of the job. And again, we run zoos and golf courses, and it’s just a really pretty amazing job.

One of the things we’re really pushing out this year is conservation. How do we take it outside of the gates of the zoo, how do we take it to Point Defiance, how do we bring it to local parks and schools so kids can start out of the gate understanding conservation and wildlife and preservation? ... We do a really great job once you’re in the zoo, but how do we get (them) to understand the South Sound and their role in conservation?

Q: What else are you looking forward to?

A: I love again the partnerships that we’re doing and building.

Within Point Defiance Park, we’re talking about the joint maintenance facility where our maintenance staff as well as (the) school district’s and potentially the city are coming together. We’re talking about the potential of even having high school students come in, much like we’ve done with SOTA and SAMI, having another opportunity for kids that may not go to a four-year university but will be able to learn to be an electrician or carpenter, and with the potential of getting an apprenticeship program where they come in, providing some one-on-one with one of our carpenters.

… Our Eastside Community Center that we’re building and opening with the Tacoma Housing Authority and the city … how the community comes together with all these agencies for one common good and common project has been pretty exciting, so I think we’re really looking forward to breaking ground on that project this year.

Q: That’s happening this spring?

A: Yeah. So we’re going to be able to open ideally a year from now, the summer or fall of 2018. It’s really exciting. We’re just fortunate because this community really likes their parks, and between all the voter-approved initiatives we have, we’ve been leveraging that.

Our last bond in 2005, it was $85 million, and we leveraged that up with grants and other types of revenues up to $130 million. We’ve been really fortunate between getting dollars from the state, from other types of granting sources, private donations and even federal dollars.

I love the park system, I love the change in the park system, and I just think this community deserves it.

Q: Do you feel that there are parts of Tacoma that are underserved and what do you want to do to change that?

A: We know that the East Side is one of the largest populated geographic areas, and we were seeing that we had the lowest (participation) in our programs. So part of why we want to build a community center there was to answer some of that.

But secondly, I think we’re really looking at what’s the complexion of all of our programs? Are we offering the right programs at the right pricing points? So part of that is, we’re looking at all equity, we’re looking at all social sustainability.

What are the types of staff that we have that are out serving — do they look like the public as well? … Are we not only doing what they’re asking for, but is it in the right venue? Maybe we should be offering programs in schools instead of in centers. Maybe we need to look at churches and being able to offer programs there. We want to bring programs to the community and to the people so they get service.

Q: How are things going with the new $8.1 million pool at the People’s Community Center in the Hilltop?

A: We’re working with an actual committee ... to figure out why aren’t people utilizing it. It’s probably — I would say that it’s hit and miss. It’s just not consistent. When usually when we open a facility, it’s packed from day one.

It ebbs and flows, so again, are we offering the right programs at the right times to the right individuals? And looking at our price points. We have a great scholarship program … we’ll work with them to get in there, so it’s really about how are we promoting it ... . It’s a pretty amazing asset that we’ve been able to introduce to the Hilltop, so I think it’s well-received, and people were really excited for it, and now we just need to activate it.

Q: Any plans for more off-leash dog runs or fenced dog runs?

A: We do a lot of planning, so we’re actually mapping out all the different type of parks and amenities. And so dog parks are one that we’re going to look at how many is the right number to have, are they in the right locations, what’s the population around it? So yeah, you’ll be seeing some additional dog parks.

We’re going to look at our sports complexes and what does that look like, if there’s any gaps. We know that there are some concerns if we have enough places to play soccer. ... You’ll start seeing this next level of planning to find out if there are any gaps and how do we propose to fill them. There may be some additional parkland that we need, so that’s some of the stuff that will be coming out from the feasibility work we’re doing this year to inform us what we’re going to be needing in the future.

Q: Do you have a favorite park?

A: You can’t ask me that, that’s terrible. I love our park system as a whole. I really like what’s going on with Swan Creek just because it’s a blank canvas, and I also think, again, about how to look at serving the East Side. I’m really intrigued with that.

I love Northwest Trek, having that — it’s so unique, a wildlife park and how it links to conservation, that’s a pretty special place. But again I could go on and on. … We just are really fortunate, we’re facility-rich, and people value it. I would put our park system up against (any in) the United States.