Ramsey County Parks director to retire


Greg Mack has been the director of Ramsey County Parks and Recreation since 1988. He’ll retire at the end of the month. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

Greg Mack looks back at decades of parks progress

It’s been a long run for Greg Mack, parting director of Ramsey County Parks and Recreation.

Mack was hired back in February 1988, at a time when the county parks department was much more fledgling.

When he started, parks workers pushed manual 20-inch-wide mowers across county grounds, and many of the facilities didn’t have plumbing. Roads through county parks were a tangled mess, and there was none of the vast trail system that now covers wide swaths of the county.

Today, the county parks system serves over 4 million people a year and has a full array of up-to-date facilities.

“It’s definitely taken off,” Mack says.

Sorely missed

Peggy Lynch, recently retired director of Friends of the Parks and Trails of St. Paul and Ramsey County, says Mack will be sorely missed within the parks community.

Lynch got involved with the county parks system just a few years before Mack was hired in 1988.

“Greg brought professionalism to Ramsey County Parks,” she says. “He’s just a really great guy and a wonderful administrator.

“He really upgraded the parks department after he moved in there.”

Mack says the county planning processes have become a lot more open during his time there.

“The whole openness of government has changed dramatically,” he says. “It means people have access ... there’s much more engagement that can happen.”

Bill Schneider, Ramsey County Parks and Recreation’s operations supervisor, praised Mack’s management style as bringing the county’s system into the 21st century. Schneider has worked with Mack for his entire 26-year tenure with the county, and says that the parks system has really picked up since Mack started.

“It was pretty bleak before, but I think we have a really modern-day park system done at a very reasonable cost,” he says.

He recalls the public had lots of demands for upgrades when Mack first came onboard. “Greg’s remark was, ‘I didn’t bring a bag of gold with me to Ramsey County,’” Schneider recalls. “Well he didn’t bring it, but he got it.”

The right skill set

Mack was the first parks director for the county to be appointed by the county manager.

“I was the test balloon,” he says, grinning.

Now 64, he’ll be retiring at the end of the month. He seems proud looking back on the changes he’s been a part of in the past 26 years -- everything from adding parkland to getting plumbing at recreation facilities, adding trail systems, bolstering the county golf program, and more.

Since he’s been there, the county has built six regional trail corridors, including the Bruce Vento Trail, and added regional parks.

“There are a few corners that aren’t perfect,” Mack says, but “it’s a high-quality park system.”

Mack says nearly all county parks facilities have been revamped during his tenure -- everything from golf courses to park shelters to ice rinks, he says.

Within Ramsey County Parks and Recreation, there are now five golf courses, 10 ice arenas, nine county parks, six regional parks and six regional trail corridors. It’s a big leap up from what the county was like when he started. And pretty much all of the facilities at all of them have been touched up since he’s been with the county.

Michelle Snider, executive director of the Minnesota Recreation and Park Association, notes Mack’s various distinguished roles he took on while with the county.

“Greg’s leadership is really one to be recognized,” she says. She adds that Ramsey County is one of only 116 agencies to get national accreditation, something that she says had a lot to do with Mack’s abilities.

Two of Mack’s lasting legacies, she says, will be the newly renovated Keller Golf Course and the Tamarack Nature Center.

Big shoes

As for Mack’s replacement, Schneider says, “those will be some big shoes to fill.”

The county has hired Jon Oyanagi as the new parks director. Oyanagi is the Brooklyn Park director of parks and recreation. He’ll take over Mack’s position May 5.

Mack calls Oyanagi “a gregarious individual” and says he has full faith in him.

Oyanagi has 30 years of experience within the field of parks and recreation. In his past six years at Brooklyn Park, Oyanagi led efforts to build the city’s first off-leash dog park, community gardens, all-inclusive playground, and the only competitive wheelchair softball field in the five-state area.

Not dropping out

Once he’s retired, Mack says he doesn’t exactly intend to drop out of the county parks system -- “It’s not like I’m walking away and moving to Florida and never coming back,” he says with a chuckle. “I love what Ramsey County does, and I’d love to do whatever I can to continue to help it.”

He’s hoping he can keep busy helping the county out, but also pursue other hobbies, like traveling with his wife and spending more time with his two grandchildren, who live in North Carolina. He and his wife have also booked a trip to the Dolomite Mountains in northern Italy and will also spend time in Venice.

A North Oaks resident, Mack also hopes to stay physically fit upon retirement. He’s an avid hunter and fisherman, and also likes to bike, run, hike and ski. He’s clearly got a personal investment in the parks system, which is part of what has made it such an enjoyable job for him, he says.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.

Tamarack trailer

When he started, outgoing Ramsey County Parks and Recreation director Greg Mack recalls that the now bustling Tamarack Nature Center was headquartered in nothing more than a single trailer -- “not even a double-wide,” he noted.

The county parks department had purchased a mobile home park in Lilydale and moved one of the trailers up to the wooded land in White Bear Township. That was it, just one trailer.

Now, the nature preserve has a modern building for kids to learn about the outdoors, something that Mack says he’s passionate about. He’s hoping Tamarack can help kids and their parents reconnect with nature.

“We’re getting too far away from it,” he says.


Leaps forward

It doesn’t take too much to understand the kinds of change that have happened under outgoing Ramsey County Parks and Recreation director Greg Mack’s leadership.

Take Island Lake Park for instance: “That park had a single shelter almost right on the waterfront,” Mack says, and people would park their cars almost right up to the water.

“They were driving wherever they wanted to, and the shelter was dilapidated.”

The old log-looking shelter there was basically just a magnet for garbage in the park. The facility didn’t have flush toilets, but rather pit latrines.

Now, all the county parks have up-to-date facilities, and on a summer day at Island Lake Park you’ll see a flurry of activity from fishing to volleyball to playground activities.

 

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