Q&A: Westport parks and rec czar on beaches to bunkers to ballfield
Maybe it's because his office is not a cubicle in a downtown building, but one with a sweeping view of the Longshore Club Park golf course it sits next to. A former soccer player at Springfield College, McCarthy, who majored in physical education, is still involved in the sport, but now referees games.
The Westport resident also loves to hit the links when he's not doing his best to make sure the town's recreational facilities are looking good and its programs are running smoothly. Married with two children, McCarthy talked with the Westport News about his years at the Parks and Recreation Department and what his role as director involves.
Q: You recently marked 26 years with the Parks and Recreation Department and this month (April) will mark 22 years as director. You've never known a full-time job other than your work for the town of Westport. Do you still love what you do? Why?
A: "I still enjoy coming to work every day. I work with good people who work hard and enjoy what they are doing in providing service to the residents of Westport."
Q: What's the absolute best part of the job?
A: "Well the commute is not bad and having an office on the golf course has its advantages, but the best part of the job is to sit back and watch people having fun and knowing that the hard work that our staff puts into planning and execution makes it possible. Watching thousands pack the beach for fireworks or a kid excited about carnival day at Camp Compo reminds you why you do what you do and the value it adds to people's lives."
Q: Most residents have a general idea of what you do, but can you explain what a typical day, or a typical week, is like?
A: "I heard the expression a long time ago you either work for the customer, or you work for someone who does. My job is to give my staff the tools they need to be successful in providing outstanding programs and facilities and then to support them. During the fall and winter it's a lot of office work, budgets, policy review etc. Spring and summer is a lot of MBWA (management by wandering around). Add in meetings, special events, and emergency management and there really is no such thing as a typical week."
Q: How have things changed much in the nearly 30 years you've been with the department? Have advances in technology helped to make the work of the Parks and Rec crew a little easier, or have the ways of doing things basically remained the same?
A: "I think most people would be surprised how little has changed in the past 26-plus years. While I have overseen a tremendous number of physical improvements including the pool and tennis facilities at Longshore, Compo Beach and Longshore Marinas, four artificial turf athletic fields and many others, the thing that has not changed is the emphasis residents put on their leisure time. Westport is a community of active people who are both demanding and appreciative when it comes to offerings by the town. Community participation, volunteerism and support have allowed us to maintain recreation programs and facilities, which is the envy of almost every town in Connecticut."
Q: You've probably dealt with a few characters over the years and have a few good stories. Can you give us one?
A: "Too many to mention. But I will take the opportunity to mention that the majority of our residents are so appreciative of what we do for them. Often, too much focus is put on those with a complaint or who think they are deserving of some special treatment. I think sometimes we do not put enough value to the thank you."
Q: But can you give us some whacky story, or the strangest thing you've seen take place on Parks and Rec property? Has anyone, for example, driven a car on the golf course?
A: "Certainly the strangest would be the 16-year-old kid who, along with a friend, drove a golf cart into the pond on No. 13 at Longshore and ended up spending 22 years and counting as the parks and recreation director."
Q: Can you tell us, in order, whether winter, spring, summer or fall, what five or ten locations are most popular with local residents?
A: "Compo Beach and Longshore are 1 and 1A. These are the facilities that bring people to Westport and, in many cases, what makes them stay here. The Levitt Pavilion is an absolute treasure and such a unique facility. To be able to see artists like Willie Nelson, the Beach Boys, Chuck Berry or Little Richard without leaving town is priceless and the 50-plus nights of free entertainment add such great value to summer in Westport. After that, Winslow Park is a place that many residents are passionate about, particularly those who enjoy sharing their leisure time with their canine companions. And on any spring or fall afternoon you will see literally thousands of kids and adults playing on our athletic fields.
Q: You clearly enjoy your job, but what is the most challenging or difficult aspect of it?"
A: Balance! Residents, customers, politicians, everyone has their own perceived priorities. My job is to sort it all out and allocate limited resources where I believe they can serve the community most effectively.
Q: "You and your department can do your best to keep town facilities looking as good as can be, but there will always be someone who finds fault. Do you get complaints on a daily or weekly basis? If so, what issue far outnumbers the rest?"
A: "We get a lot of customer feedback. Sometimes a complaint and sometimes a compliment and most times some combination of the two. Every facility has its own issues and demands and people tend to focus only on the facilities that they use and understandably feel those facilities should be receiving the highest priority attention. Our staff does a great job of balancing demands for service with available resources."
Q: The economic downtown of the last few years has had an impact on your department if I'm not mistaken. Which Parks and Recreation programs have been cut? With smaller budgets than years past, has there been a lot of pressure to increase user fees for various activities, to make up for the cutbacks? Have you had to give in to the pressure?
A: "Unfortunately the facility maintenance budgets have taken the greatest hit from a budget standpoint. We have reduced manpower to allow for only basic maintenance and have struggled to make renovations or improvements. I think over time it will be particularly noticeable in the quality of the athletic fields which are subject to a tremendous amount of traffic.
"I think the urge to raise user fees needs to be tempered. We are in the business of PUBLIC recreation. Our goal is to assure that all of our programs and facilities are available to every resident of Westport. While clearly many Westporters are able to afford higher fees, we need to resist turning the public facilities into resort priced amenities and pricing out the people who need public recreation the most."
Q: Have you found that the economic downturn has led to more people staying close to home, using Parks & Recreation facilities, rather than traveling afar?
A: "We have seen an increase in `staycations.' When you think of what the town offers you can get great value by staying at home."
Q: Budgets are tight, yes, but if money were no object, what projects would the Parks and Recreation Department embark on? What properties/structures are in serious need of a make-over?
A: "A new golf pro shop/clubhouse facility at Longshore; traffic and pedestrian improvements at Compo; improvements at Winslow Park including paths and landscaping, and artificial athletic turf at Coleytown and Long Lots."
Q: If you were going to include a Parks and Recreation property in a town of Westport pamphlet to lure someone to move here, but couldn't include Longshore or Compo Beach, what property would you choose and why?
A: "A picture of folks enjoying a show and a picnic supper at the Levitt Pavilion overlooking the Saugatuck River on a summer night is all the advertisement the town should need."
Q: OK, serious question here. Your job has you traveling around town a good deal, so tell us, where is the best place to get lunch and what do you typically order?
A: "That's an easy one. Joey's by the Shore at Compo Beach. Everything is good and fresh. Since they discontinued the SeaDog, I usually just ask, `What's good today?' They never steer me wrong."