The Overlook with Matt Peiken

A New Season of Parks and Rec | Director D. Tyrell McGirt

April 08, 2024 Matt Peiken Episode 147
A New Season of Parks and Rec | Director D. Tyrell McGirt
The Overlook with Matt Peiken
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The Overlook with Matt Peiken
A New Season of Parks and Rec | Director D. Tyrell McGirt
Apr 08, 2024 Episode 147
Matt Peiken

LISTENERS: Have thoughts about this episode? Send them my way!

D. Tyrell McGirt says his career path was blazed as a 10-year-old in Greensboro, when his mother signed him up for a lifeguarding class. He ran parks and recreation departments in Alabama, Arizona and Alaska before moving two years ago to lead the department in Asheville.

In this conversation, McGirt talks through his department's recent decision to keep Malvern Hills Park Pool closed this year and balancing the needs of pickleballers and tennis players. We also talk equity, tracking park usage and his call for the public’s voice in shaping a comprehensive plan that will guide his department's decisions for the next 10 to 15 years.

Wake Up, Asheville! and ¡Despierta Asheville!  (in Spanish) are new morning newscast podcasts that give you all the local news you need to know in under five minutes. Both are free to subscribe/follow wherever you get your podcasts!

SPONSOR: Asheville City Soccer Club home games run through June 29 for the women's team and July 13 for the men's team at Greenwood Field on the UNC-Asheville campus.

Support the Show.

Support The Overlook by joining our Patreon campaign!

Advertise your event on The Overlook.

Instagram: AVLoverlook | Facebook: AVLoverlook | Twitter: AVLoverlook

Listen and Subscribe: All episodes of The Overlook

The Overlook theme song, "Maker's Song," comes courtesy of the Asheville band The Resonant Rogues.

Podcast Asheville © 2023

Show Notes Transcript

LISTENERS: Have thoughts about this episode? Send them my way!

D. Tyrell McGirt says his career path was blazed as a 10-year-old in Greensboro, when his mother signed him up for a lifeguarding class. He ran parks and recreation departments in Alabama, Arizona and Alaska before moving two years ago to lead the department in Asheville.

In this conversation, McGirt talks through his department's recent decision to keep Malvern Hills Park Pool closed this year and balancing the needs of pickleballers and tennis players. We also talk equity, tracking park usage and his call for the public’s voice in shaping a comprehensive plan that will guide his department's decisions for the next 10 to 15 years.

Wake Up, Asheville! and ¡Despierta Asheville!  (in Spanish) are new morning newscast podcasts that give you all the local news you need to know in under five minutes. Both are free to subscribe/follow wherever you get your podcasts!

SPONSOR: Asheville City Soccer Club home games run through June 29 for the women's team and July 13 for the men's team at Greenwood Field on the UNC-Asheville campus.

Support the Show.

Support The Overlook by joining our Patreon campaign!

Advertise your event on The Overlook.

Instagram: AVLoverlook | Facebook: AVLoverlook | Twitter: AVLoverlook

Listen and Subscribe: All episodes of The Overlook

The Overlook theme song, "Maker's Song," comes courtesy of the Asheville band The Resonant Rogues.

Podcast Asheville © 2023

Matt Peiken:  What led you to this work?

D. Tyrell McGirt: What led me to the work is my mom coming home one day and asking, Hey, do you want to be a lifeguard this summer? And before I could say. Yeah, I could do that. Or no, she said, I signed you up for the next lifeguarding class. Go ahead and get prepared. So I worked part time in parts and rec in high school and college and found myself working full time once I graduated college for the local YWCA in Charlotte, North Carolina. And it just took off from there. 

Matt Peiken: When you came in as director and you looked at the city budget, did you think, oh, this is a healthy budget for a city this size? Or did you think, oh, we've got some challenges here? What was your perspective, your assessment of where City of Asheville sat with its budget in relation to the city's parks and recreation needs and responsibilities?

D. Tyrell McGirt: It's kinda hard to assess everything that needs to happen. Certainly I can eyeball things. So as I was going through the interview process, I was able to look and see that we have a lot of aging infrastructure facilities. But until you're in it, it's hard to do an assessment. So from the outside, it looked like a healthy budget.

It looks like we are where we should be in terms of allocations. We have a healthy number of staff that we invest in to maintain our park properties and deliver the services that we do. But yeah, now that I'm in it, I've recognized that a lot of the aging infrastructure that I was eyeballing and seeing when I came in during the interview process, All of those things need attention, and it's going to take money to get them up to speed and operating like we would like a community center to operate in the city.

Matt Peiken: I guess the facility that probably has the most recent headlines is the Malvern Hills Pool. Talk about that a little bit. So it's a 90 year old pool And you and your colleagues decided it Could not open This coming season because it needs repairs that just weren't going to be able to take place in time? 

D. Tyrell McGirt: Exactly, it couldn't take place in time and It is a huge investment in a property that is 90 years old and we don't know what other problems may be unveiled if we start making the things that we know that need to be improved.

So yes, the staff, we made a tough decision to not open the pool this summer and to utilize our current comprehensive plan to guide what further investment or decisions we make in Malvern Hills Park will 

Matt Peiken: be. 

Can you talk about that a little bit? Because from the outside looking in, A pool doesn't seem to be a very complicated structure that you would think, oh, just some caulking, re cementing. It wouldn't seem like it would be that major of an undertaking. You talk about the age of it playing a big role. Give us a breakdown of what made the Malvern Hills Pool and makes it such a challenging reconstruction or renovation. 

D. Tyrell McGirt: If you throw enough money at any problem, it's not an issue. It's deciding if you want to invest that type of money. The things that we know are an issue specifically with Malvern Hills pool is we know we have to have the sump drains replaced. That is something that we can't even function or operate unless those are redone. And that kind of prevents entrapment and people from drowning.

We know that we have to have the fresh water returns redone and completely replaced that prevents disease transmission. We know the plaster of the pool across the entire pool bottom has to be redone. We don't want people utilizing the space and getting cut. And that's something that we've done patchwork on over the years.

But we're at a point now where it just needs to be completely redone. And then the electrical bonding portion of the pool. We were dealing with a 90 year old pool. Anytime we go in now and have anything retro fitted to bring the pool up to code, you have to look at that electrical bonding.

And The other things are prompting major impacts. And so now we're at the point where the electrical bond has to happen with the pool also. 

Matt Peiken: You mentioned that you throw enough money at anything you can fix it. What are you looking at in terms of the total cost of this? 

D. Tyrell McGirt: Yeah, so with those things that we know that need to happen right now in order to open the pool safely, It's estimated at $400,000.

Matt Peiken: On the surface of it, $400,000 in the scope of a city budget seems oh, that's a rounding error in some ways, that amount of money. I guess it's all perspective. Talk about the challenges on your department's budget. You said the tough decisions you had to make. What did you weigh that against?

The $400,000 that would be spent on those repairs versus where is that money going? 

D. Tyrell McGirt: Yeah. So we know at this point, Those funds have not been budgeted for. We set aside some money for pools every year to make some of the minor repairs, but not to the tune of 400, 000, which creates a major capital project.

We know at this point, this is roughly how much it's going to cost, and I think our bids came in between 300, 350 and 400, a little over 400. We know that if we were to move forward with anything, then something else would not happen within our operations, in our system. Something else that would have to be cut. 

And when you weigh a pool that is open three months out of the year, roughly, compared to a community center that also needs repairs, that is open year round, and in the service of more people, That's the tough decision that has to be made and so The decision not to open the pool those are the things that we're looking at operationally, the people that we're serving. 

Matt Peiken: How many pools are under the umbrella of city parks and rec? 

D. Tyrell McGirt: Three pools and one splash pad. 

Matt Peiken: Wow. For a city of 90, 000 people, that doesn't sound like a lot or, but you give me perspective. I don't know. Does that seem like a per capita, like we're pretty well resourced that way? 

D. Tyrell McGirt: Yeah, it's interesting you say that because one of the things we're finding out from the comp plan is we're pretty evenly matched. We're benchmarking ourselves against other like communities and we're finding a couple pools for city our size tends to be what other communities are dealing with also.

Matt Peiken: So to put this issue to bed for now, will these renovations happen before 2025 season? 

D. Tyrell McGirt: No decision has been made yet.

Matt Peiken: Wow. So costs only go up. Is there a possibility this pool may never reopen? 

D. Tyrell McGirt: We don't know yet. It would be premature to say, especially in the absence of having a completed comprehensive plan, which is the document that we're really using to guide what our further investments will be. 

Matt Peiken: Going on the topic of under resourced. I had a number of months ago, I had pickleball people in here and tennis people and I did an episode of my show pickleball versus tennis and apparently one thing that both sides agree on is that they believe we need dedicated pickleball courts in the city of Asheville.

From what I understand, there are only 11 tennis courts in the city of Asheville. To me, that also seems wow, we are under resourced there. What's your take on the needs of the pickleball community and the needs of the tennis community and how the city is meeting it or needs to meet it? 

D. Tyrell McGirt: I think they're right. It would be awesome to live in a community where we had those dedicated recreation spaces. As parks and rec professionals, we want it all. We want to be able to have shining new tennis centers and dedicated pickleball courts for citizens that live and work here in Asheville. But the reality is just much different.

I think what we've come up with in the interim, shared space between the tennis community and the pickleball community, is something that works for us, understanding that we have 11 outdoor tennis courts and being able to double that in number by put it in pickleball lines on it is ideal.

We do the same thing with our gym spaces. We would never build a gymnasium and not line it with volleyball courts or any other sport court that we can get out of that space. So One of the things we try to do is figure out how we can maximize spaces and facilities and resources because we're serving the greater good.

Matt Peiken: One of the things that both those communities told me is that from what their understanding is from the city, that there isn't really land available, readily available, given other needs of this community, chiefly housing, to open new courts. Is that your take on that as well, that given Asheville's demands for housing, other land demands, that this is the space we have, and this is what we're going to have to make best use of going forward, no matter how this city's population grows? 

D. Tyrell McGirt: Yeah, there are a number of opportunities and certainly the needs that we are experiencing within the Parks and Rec is just one department. There's certainly other city departments that are experiencing other challenges and our city leadership and city council have to make tough decisions on what gets invested in.

Land wise, I think there's some things we could probably look at and do. But the investment tends to be the biggest challenge.

Matt Peiken: Do you perceive a role for the parks and recreation department director for you as director to play an advocacy role for the growth and health of parks and recreation services in this city with city leaders, making the case for certain needs. 

D. Tyrell McGirt: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Again, as parks and rec professionals, we want to conserve and preserve all things recreation in scope.

So yes, if it touches what we do in terms of providing healthy options for people to get involved, engaged, active, moving, we're all about it all day long. And we advocate for all of those things to happen within a system. 

Matt Peiken: Do you have a sense or does your department track usage of city parks, about whether certain parks are Heavily used or underused? Is that something that your department tracks? 

D. Tyrell McGirt: We haven't done a good job of tracking it in the past. Moving forward, yes. It is one of the goals to do a better job of tracking those numbers year in, year out. And from the comp plan, we realize that with getting some numbers, that'll give us a better idea of how parks are used, who's using them, how far people are traveling, et cetera. 

Matt Peiken: Why is that important to know about which parks are seeing more use than others? 

D. Tyrell McGirt: So we know how to properly maintain them. We know what to invest in. We can predict what's coming down the pipe and we have a better understanding of user groups, how people are utilizing parks and that dictates what we build more of.

Matt Peiken: There are two parks in this city, and you can correct me if I'm missing more than this, but two parks in this city that seem heavily used and have multi uses, I think, that do a great job of addressing certain needs. One is Richmond Hill Park, and the other is Carrier Park. And both seem demanding to me in some ways, because there's multiple uses in each park.

At Richmond Hill, you've got the disc golf course, you've got trails that are used by runners, Cyclist, you've got a dedicated mountain bike area. Are there other needs or how is city parks and rec addressing what's happening at richmond hill? Are there more plans to expand the park or expand services and programming at that park. 

D. Tyrell McGirt: Yeah, richmond hill is a good example of how partnerships work. So we have the disc golf and the You The mountain bike trails out there because of partnerships that we have with nonprofits in the community, namely Western North Carolina Disc Golf Association and Pisgah Sorba.

They're the ones who were putting in the disc golf courses and the trails, both pedestrian and cyclists. So that's a good example of building up momentum, building up more activity in the park to the point where we now have a nice parking lot up there. We have a restroom area, a shelter area because the area is just getting a lot of attention. And it's popular. 

Matt Peiken: Is there any talk of having, in that park specifically, a dedicated dog park. I know a lot of people bring their dogs there. I used to now it's overrun. And I don't bring my dogs there anymore. It's one of the few forested areas in this city that maybe could have a portion of it dedicated as a dog park, an off leash park that makes use of the forest, particularly in the back area on the red trail area. I thought, wow, what a great area if we just had two acres here for a dog park. Any talk or momentum for that? 

D. Tyrell McGirt: No talk of momentum at this time.

Matt Peiken: I'm starting talk on that. That's funny to me that there isn't more of lobbying happening to get a dedicated dog park. Are there dedicated dog parks? I know there's one at french broad river park? Are there others that are under the city purview? 

D. Tyrell McGirt: And we have one over near recreation park, azalea park 

Matt Peiken: azalea park Okay, I haven't been to that one. And you haven't heard from people like we need more dog parks? 

D. Tyrell McGirt: Not at richmond hill Yeah, people say we, they would like more dog parks, yes. Not specifically at 

Matt Peiken: Richmond Hill. 

Gotcha. Are there areas of the city that are pinpointed as sorely needing that? 

D. Tyrell McGirt: No area of the city has been pinpointed at this point.

We know that people are asking for it, but I'll be honest with you, our focus and concentration is on maintaining what we currently have. I've talked earlier about the infrastructure needs. We see what's happening at Malvern Hills Pool. I've talked about the community centers needing a lot of attention.

And some of our park spaces. Part of what we want to get out of the comprehensive plan, Recreate Asheville, is realistic, strategic plan to maintain our current infrastructure. That's where our focus is. currently is. 

Matt Peiken: So the comprehensive plan it's completed or is it developing?

D. Tyrell McGirt: It's developing. 

Matt Peiken: It is. What's the timeline for this plan and what informs this comprehensive plan? 

D. Tyrell McGirt: The timeline is to have it done by this summer. Hoping to have a complete project that we can push out, share, and start strategizing over what next steps would be in terms of investments, priority projects, what are some of those short term, long term goals that we're going to have for the Asheville Parks and Recreation System.

Matt Peiken: So the comprehensive plan, will it get pretty granular for specific no, it won't. It's more higher philosophy. 

D. Tyrell McGirt: Yes, higher level with some details in strategies that we can move forward with. Okay. 

Matt Peiken: Let's talk about Carrier Park. That, to me, seems the most used, it's the largest park in our system, if I'm not correct on that.

Active Park. Active Park. Is there another one that's larger than this? Richmond Hill. Oh, I see. There was. Gotcha. Carrier Park, it's a multi use park, everything from softball, soccer, running, velodrome. Are there areas of the park that You've got infrastructure for that aren't being used very much?

Like I noticed there's one, I don't even know what it's for. You've got this area that has, it looks like it could be for bocce ball or something. It's lawn bowling. Who's the lawn bowling. I've not seen any other lawn bowl. You're giving me a wide eyed look. So there is lawn bowling happening out there.

Okay. And I've seen yoga happening there when there isn't lawn bowling. Tell me, are there, what has picked up in the park? And I know you told me a little bit before you have not done a use study to see what's being used a lot or less. So carrier park, do you have a sense that all of our features that are being used well, or is there talk of this is less used.

Maybe we need to do something about this. 

D. Tyrell McGirt: Yeah. Our open space is used, volleyball is growing. So volleyball spaces have expanded beyond the sand volleyball areas. So any of the open spaces that exist out there, The volleyballers, they tell you they want all of that space. 

Matt Peiken: Anybody who uses anything will tell you that this is our space, right?

Exactly. Is Carrier Park, because it's so vast and has multi uses, is it easy for the city to say we don't need those features elsewhere in the city because it exists at Carrier Park? Are there need for softball, volleyball elsewhere in the city that we don't have? 

D. Tyrell McGirt: It's hard to answer that question. I would say it would be nice to have those things spread out throughout town and try to provide them close to where people are. I don't know how realistic that is. Again, one of the things we're hoping to get from the comp plan is where investment should be made based on user group and feedback that we've heard.

One of the things that we try to do is make sure we engage with all of our stakeholder groups. So that included our athletic associations, our non profits. Anyone that we've partnered with in the past, they get their input and feedback on, what they'd like to see in our comprehensive system. 

Matt Peiken: I guess one of the questions that just came to mind, I hadn't even thought about this before, is about access to these parks, about people's ability to get there, whether bus lines go there or there's other transportation outlets that make it easy for people to get from one side of the city to the other to access these facilities.

And when the city only has two pools and a splash area, the ability to get there is more paramount, right? 

D. Tyrell McGirt: Exactly. But it's also, You have different types of parks and different types of recreation amenities, something like a carrier park is considered a community park or a regional park.

And these are park spaces where we know people are going to travel some distance to get to, because of the amount of things. Active activity that is happening in those parks. And then you have pocket parks, something like we would see downtown or neighborhood parks which typically have a playground open space maybe a ball field cause Asheville's infrastructure is a little older.

So you have these different types of parks. And what we're trying to do is makes sense out of where, what types of investment should be made, where there are gaps. We know equity is a huge issue, so making sure that communities that are underserved historically get those proper investments also.

Matt Peiken: Talking about pocket parks, that is a relatively Recent development in cities, right? That they weren't really thinking about this 20 years ago, turning two parking spaces into a parklet. We have a couple of those downtown, correct? That you did your department overseas. Yes. Talk about those and what's the reason behind having such tiny public parks. 

D. Tyrell McGirt: So downtown areas are urban space. And anytime you can have a green space in an urban area or a highly dense area in a form of a park is welcome. So a lot of places, Asheville included, have developed what we call pocket parks. It's just a small area, shaded area, it's a seated area where people can stop, rest.

Matt Peiken: But am I correct in that, that wasn't a function or feature that cities were thinking about a couple of decades ago?

D. Tyrell McGirt: Yes, it's always been a feature, but what you're seeing is the emergence of it. It's become more popular and people have recognized the importance of having open space park spaces in various forms throughout the systems. 

Matt Peiken: Even though it existed before, why do you think it's only relatively recently become more a topic du jour that it's more top of mind now than before? What do you think has happened? 

D. Tyrell McGirt: I think people value the amenity of having a park. I think it's top of mind for a lot more people now and people are living and working where they live. So if you're in an urban space or a highly dense space, a pocket park may be your closest nearby park.

So people are recognizing, I think now that having these spaces closer to where I live and work. It's an asset. 

Matt Peiken: Speaking of small parks, Pritchard Park is an iconic park in the city of Asheville. Talk about the uses there. What happens there? It's a high congregation area. You've got the Friday drum circles. What is the vantage of managing the needs of Pritchard park? 

D. Tyrell McGirt: Yeah. Pritchard park is one of those high use areas for us within the Asheville park system. It's located in downtown. We know tourism is really big here and it's located in the area that's already attracting a lot of people. And it's an area that we want to program. You mentioned the drum circle. There'll be art shows. There are a number of things that we're doing within the park in order to program and activate it.

Hopefully keep out any behavior that's unwanted and make the area just a more welcoming place. 

Matt Peiken: Talk about the programming there beyond the drum circle. I think that's what most people associate with Pritchard Park. What are some other programs that the city has brought into the park to activate the space?

D. Tyrell McGirt: We actually don't program that space. We partner with Downtown Asheville Association. They do a lot of the programming. They will present to us a list of calendar activities that they want to host. We review it, work together, and then they are the ones who actually program in this space. And then our staff are the ones that are just Maintaining it and keeping the maintenance

Matt Peiken: I see. Is there an opportunity with any of your city parks for community, nonprofits, other entities to propose ideas? To talk about that? Is that something that people generally don't take advantage of? That there's this resource that they can program and try to bring events to the parks. Or is that something that happens a lot?

D. Tyrell McGirt: That happens a lot in our downtown parks. Pritchard park, Pack square, triangle Park to a lesser extent. These are areas located downtown that are constantly being activated and programmed with nonprofits, different festivals, people coming to town, people that live here.

So those spaces, along with carrier park Get the most programming activity. But yes, any space within our system, we're open to sitting down with local organizations, nonprofits that talk about what other programming opportunities look like for a specific space. 

Matt Peiken: I guess the last major topic I want to talk about is sports. We're heading into spring season. It'll be summer. Are we inundated with city soccer leagues, softball leagues, baseball leagues? What does the city oversee in terms of summer sports and spring sports? 

D. Tyrell McGirt: So most of us sport activity here in Asheville is operated through nonprofits. So in terms of soccer, we know ABYSA, they're the go to organization that's offering soccer at both the competition level as well as direct level.

We have three different little league associations that are managing baseball, softball, t ball here in the area. We do fall ball. We do flag football. We do a number of adult volleyball leagues through Asheville Parks and Rec system. 

Matt Peiken: And with Asheville's growing population, are you seeing more demand for these services?

D. Tyrell McGirt: Yes, especially the adult services. We hear often we want more time in centers. We would like to utilize more spaces. That's something that's been a challenge. Our flag football league has grown tremendously and it's becoming a challenge to try to find space that, that satisfy all of those user groups.

Matt Peiken: Yeah, it seems like an undercurrent in this conversation is space. And from what I'm hearing from you is The likelihood of generating more space for any particular need is little to none, and that we have to make use of what we have and make the optimal use of what we have. Am I reading that correctly?

D. Tyrell McGirt: We'll see. We'll see. Yes, our focus is on maintaining what we currently have. It doesn't mean that there isn't room for anything that's new. It's just that our primary attention and focus right now is on maintaining our current assets.

Matt Peiken: So you have the comprehensive plan coming around the corner. How would you advise or suggest for people living in the city to best engage with what you're doing in parks and rec? Is there a role for everyday people to play?

D. Tyrell McGirt: Oh, absolutely. The feedback that we get from citizens is the guiding factor, right? It's part of the equation of what investment, what programs we offer, How we make decisions on the future of Asheville Parks and Rec. So yeah, we're in phase two now.

We have a couple of public engagement sessions scheduled this month, March 27th, 28th. I would encourage people to go to recreateasheville. com. Check out the website. There's more information on other ways they can get involved. There'll be another survey that citizens can take to hear where we are right now.

Kind of some of the things that have risen to the top and provide some additional feedback on the Asheville parks and rec system and our future. 

I think the recreate Asheville thing is our big thing right now. This is a guiding document that we're going to be using certainly for the next 10 years. The opportunity to hear back from as many citizens from different areas of the city is something that we always pushing out and even if you don't use the system, we want to hear why so we can figure out how we can better engage with citizens at all levels of their recreation journey.

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