Jim Rodgers is the quintessential parks man. He has spent nearly 40 years working for parks departments throughout Central Texas, including the Cities of Austin and Cedar Park. He also served as the first-ever Parks Director for Williamson County, helping build the department from the ground-up. This month we sat down with Jim to talk about his amazing career and learn from his experience building and managing parks.
Tell us about your background. How did you get to where you are today?
I grew up in Corpus Christi and went to Stephen F. Austin University, where they had a program in forestry. Within forestry, I chose a minor in Forest Recreation. It was a very good foundation for what I wound up doing. When I graduated, I actually had an offer from the National Park Service. But it was a temporary position, and they said I’d be doing a lot of traveling. At the time I thought, “Oh man, I don’t want that job.” Looking back, I can’t believe I turned down the National Park Service.
So I came here to Austin and interviewed with Jack Robinson, who is still one of my mentors to this day. At the time he was the Assistant Director of Parks. He gave me a job as an Administrative Assistant. But I wanted to get out of the office so bad, and Jack knew it. So even though he never really interviewed me, Jack basically hand-picked me to be the Zilker Park Manager. The job included Barton Springs Pool, the Garden Center, and the whole park at the time.
I was at Zilker Park for 10 years. We lived there until the kids were 8 and 5. Then things changed – my boss moved around. I held various jobs for the City of Austin for 25 years. At one time I was responsible for all the swimming pools, then all the metro parks.
Later, I interviewed with Cedar Park and became their Parks Director. It was very interesting, and I enjoyed Cedar Park very much. I stayed there 5 years. The reason I left was because Williamson County was starting their parks department. It’s one of the things you think you always want – to have both sides fighting over you. It’s actually the worst thing. I loved the people in Cedar Park, and the Williamson County folks were good people, too. It came down to the fact that the Williamson County Parks Department was brand spanking new, and I had the opportunity to be part of the decision making.
You are one of only a few people who can say that they actually lived in Austin’s famous Zilker Park. Tell us about that experience.
When I was the Zilker Park Manager, we got to live in the house in the park. Both of my sons, Ben and Will, were born there. The world was a little different back then – we would just let Will go play in the playscape. He would just go out the back gate and play, and then we’d come get him for dinner. One day I went out there to get him, and I couldn’t find him. I walked down to the train station and it was closed. I was getting kind of worried, and about that time the train came around the corner of the house. He was riding with Mr. Glen on the train. There he was, probably 5 or 6, riding on his own personal train and playing on his own personal playscape. Needless to say, the kids had a good time growing up.
You worked for the City of Austin and have lived in Austin for a long time. What have you witnessed that has really changed the face of this city?
Well, I’ll tell you a story. One day when I was working for the City, Jack Robinson came to the office and asked me to go with him to Lou Neff Point. When we arrived, we saw a big black limo waiting for us, and to my surprise Jack said we were going to talk to Lady Bird Johnson. I was like 23 years old, and he introduced me to the former First Lady of the United States. She was just the most gracious lady. They walked ahead of us talking, and I walked with the Secret Service Agent behind them. The Trail was so new that you could still smell the creosote. One thing that stood out to me was that there was just no one on the trail. I remember thinking: she is such a nice lady – I sure hope people actually come and use this thing. I had no idea what it would become. Years later, I found myself sitting in on a meeting where we had to decide whether or not to eliminate bicycles from the trail because it was so busy and popular. It was really one of those cases where if you build it, they will come. They were real visionaries, and Jack doesn’t get a lot of the credit that he should.
When did you start on the Brushy Creek Regional Trail?
I was still with Cedar Park when we started the regional trail. It began with the purchase of Champion Park. The developers out in Avery Ranch realized that to complement their development, we really needed a trail. Everyone just got on board. It was a great endeavor between the City of Austin, the City of Cedar Park, City of Round Rock, and 2 MUDs – Brushy Creek and Fern Bluff. We met regularly, and decided that the first component ought to be in Cedar Park. You couldn’t do the whole trail and make everybody happy at once. You had to approach it from the perspective that you weren’t building a resume, because people would have fought and it wouldn’t have gotten built. We finished the first piece when I was with Cedar Park, but when I went to Williamson County we got 2 regional grants and continued the idea – working with all those cities.
As Williamson County’s first parks director, you had the opportunity to really influence the direction of that department. Tell us a little about your vision for Williamson County Parks and the work you did there.
We had to start by figuring out our purpose. Travis and Williamson Counties are obviously very politically different. But another difference is that Travis County has the big city of Austin, and Williamson County has Round Rock, Cedar Park, Georgetown, and Leander, and also a bunch of smaller places. All of those cities and towns have parks directors and good parks departments. It occurred to me that we needed to let the cities do their thing, and as the County we would focus on the larger regional parks. Our master planning consultant discovered that the citizens wanted sports fields close to their houses, but they also want hiking opportunities and trails. They approved themaster plan with the caveat that the cities were going to do sports endeavors, and the county would do the large, outdoor, and somewhat passive parks. I got them on a great path, and I think they are still on that path. They are developing great parks.
As a parks director, what did you look for in a consultant?
When you build a project, you are looking for a partner – someone you can work with. First of all, you want someone who is qualified. But you also want a partner who is honest, trustworthy, and has a sense of humor. You have to be able to work with them. It’s the same thing as when you hire an employee. You want to know they are the right person for the job.
In the interviews, people sometimes bring others to the meeting to impress you. They bring their architects and their engineers. Most of the time these folks don’t say anything throughout the entire interview. Guess what? We want to see what those people are like, too. Basically, I look for enthusiasm, sparkle, and creativity.
You have studied how people perceive parks at different ages. Tell us a little about that.
There’s a book called Last Child in the Woods. It deals with the cultural change from rural to urban, and the trends with kids and computers. These things lead us to what they call “nature deficit disorder.” I keep saying this, so everyone realizes it: these kids are going to be our future. In the book it talks about how kids know more about the panda bears in China than they do about what’s happening in their own backyard. There’s nothing wrong with computers or video games – they teach great flexibility and hand skills – but that shouldn’t take the place of being outside. Kids will enjoy being outside in nature, but sometimes it’s easier not to.
You know, we think we know so much about kids and what is good for them. One time we were working on a playscape in Zilker. There was this old ship with railroad ties. We were so tired of having railroad ties, so we hired an artist to do bas relief in scenes of dolphins and turtles.
We thought kids would love to come and touch it. So we spent a lot of money on it, and the kids came down there and touched it alright, but that was the last time they touched it. They climbed up and jumped off of them, and ran around them. You have to be careful that you don’t design it for you and not them.
Another thing is that you have to consider how kids think. One time we had a parent come in and say her child got stung by a yellow jacket on the Zilker playscape. We went out and couldn’t find a yellow nest. We figured maybe they had mistaken it for a bee. No big deal. But then we got another parent who said no – it was a yellow jacket – and this time they were more specific in saying it was right by a certain platform. The guys went out and still couldn’t find it. As it turns out there was a platform about 12 inches off the ground. You literally had to lay down and look up to see it. That’s where the yellow jackets were. The idea is – you’re up here – and kids are down there. So you really have to consider things from their point of view.
It’s also important to understand the difference between a hazard and a risk. A hazard is like when you don’t inspect the chains on a swingset and they break while the kids are swinging. But risks – kids will take risks because that’s how they learn. The risks are part of their development. You just need to make sure you don’t miss a step in planning for those risks. You have to present things so that they can take risks in a safe way.
I look at the water playscape that RVi designed with us at Williamson County. The right of passage is the water fall. I’ve watched my grandkids do this. At first they are not going to go under that waterfall. They think it’s going to blow their shorts off. So they go around and do everything else. Then, they try the water cannons, which come with a risk of their own. Then finally they get through it and decide they’re going to brave the waterfall. First they run along the edge of it, and then they finally stand under it and it just blasts them! They are afraid to take the risk, and they get closer and closer to it, and then finally they do it – and that’s the right of passage. It’s part of their development.
You really live and breathe parks. Why? What is it that interests you so much?
Well, I think back on this one experience. I was retiring and this wonderful writer was doing this article on me.
We were standing on the bridge at the Quarry Splash Park. He was conducting the interview right there on the bridge. This mom comes up to us and she has a child who is clearly a special needs child. She asked if either of us had anything to do with this park. Brad pointed at me and said “he built it!” She told us that her son had Down syndrome. She said “I could never really get him to go outside. But he absolutely loves this place.” So you asked why…that’s pretty much it.
Also, in this business you’re always worried about maintenance and this and that – making sure people are happy, working with contractors – but what you’re really doing is working for someone who will never know you. You will never get credit for it, but you’d better give it 100 percent, because whether or not those people are satisfied is your responsibility. There is reward upon reward in this business. The rewards are just glimpses of how people use the parks – which is always different from what you expected! You have to go sit sometimes and just watch how people use the parks you built – you will learn a lot.
What do you do in your spare time? Any vacations planned?
I’m a woodworker in my spare time. I love it – it’s always been a nice freedom. When you are worried about cutting
yourself you can’t really think of anything else like the pressures at work.
I think cities should encourage their employees to travel. Everywhere I go, I find things that make me think “wow, that’s a good way to solve that problem.” Traveling and seeing the world gives you the basis to stand up in front of a council meeting and say, “Heck yeah we need a 10 foot trail. You ought to see the trail in Kensington Park in London!” You’re not boasting – you have really seen a 20 foot trail and it had horses and bikes and everything. You know it can be done. Travel helps you practice what you preach.