Two park leaders — one a longtime former Minneapolis Park Board employee and the other, a newcomer — want to be the next superintendent of the city’s park system. They want to build on the park system’s well-regarded reputation by increasing partnerships for programming and finding innovative ways to engage with all community members.
In a room of community members and employees, the Park Board publicly interviewed the two finalists Tuesday: Seve Ghose, the Metro Parks and Recreation Department director in Louisville, Ky., and Al Bangoura, the recreation superintendent for Mecklenburg County (which includes Charlotte, N.C.) Parks and Recreation. A third candidate dropped out.
“They are different people, and you can tell they are excited about making change,” said Tenanye Heard, an employee at the Park Board who attended and met the candidates. “And this place needs change.”
When Ghose was studying economics at Iowa State University, he was working at the local parks department to help pay for school. When the system needed someone to temporarily manage the local ice rink, they picked him.
In a few months, Ghose turned the rink into a welcoming place by adding plastic plants and cleaning up the facility. He was hired permanently and never left the field.
Ghose considers parks and recreation “the great equalizer in communities.”
In Springfield, Ore., he created a “1Pass,” a $50 ticket that lets youth visit local museums, ride transit and watch sports during the summer months. Local sponsors helped fund 500 passes to be given away as scholarships.
“We have to find a niche. We can’t be all things to all people,” he said.
During the 2006 World Cup, Ghose secured sponsors in Portland, Ore., (Starbucks, Comcast, Adidas North America and Columbia Sportswear) to help host soccer games viewed in Spanish and English at two rec centers. Those sponsors went on to “help sustain other gaps in our funding.” When the World Cup was over, program participation increased. In Minneapolis, he suggested teaming up with local companies to sponsor specific programs, like Zumba.
“It allows the company to thrive in the situation … but at the same time to sustain the programming long term,” he said.
While at Iowa State, Ghose would frequent Minneapolis at least once a month. “We’d come up for concerts, visit friends. … Kansas City is also nearby, but Minneapolis is more favored,” he said with a laugh.
For Ghose, Minneapolis has always been a welcoming place and is considered the top-rung of his career ladder.
“It’s hard to show passion over the phone,” Ghose said in a phone interview this week. “I think we can take Minneapolis to the next highest level. I really feel I can bring the community together because I’ve achieved that in smaller cities I’ve worked in.”
The longtime Minnesotan spent 19 years working for the very agency he hopes to lead.
His first job was at Webber Park as a recreation coordinator and then in various communities throughout the system.
In North Carolina, he partnered with a local arts school to teach various programs to youth and secured additional funding from Blue Cross Blue Shield to sustain its Open Streets initiative.
“It’s possible to find those relationships and people committed to your mission,” he said.
Regarding equity, Bangoura talked about moving staff to areas that reflect the community and learn about different cultures.
“You have to be immersed in the community and talk with them to build those services,” he said.
Bangoura called rec centers the “touch points for the community.” In Charlotte, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the state, kids worry about getting jobs. He’s turned centers into “makerspaces” where students learn STEM skills and offer other programs to “advance themselves.”
“What makes park and recreation unique is our amenities, our capital, our environment, it’s our parks,” he said.
Bangoura pledges to make changes and lead the system into the future.
“I love this city. My heart has always been here,” Bangoura said. “I make changes. … I will lead this organization with care and lead the staff with care; I will lead the community with care.”
Many community members were impressed with both candidates and felt like each offered their own strengths.
Some applauded Bangoura for mentioning adult programming, while others liked that Ghose got on his hands and knees to clean up an ice rink.
“I want a balance of protecting assets and serving the community,” said Mary Pattock, who attended the meeting. “It matters that they love the city, not that anyone won’t come to love it.”