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City finds next department leader

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Columbus Parks and Recreation Board members have approved Mayor Kristen Brown’s nomination to promote an inside candidate as the city’s new parks director.

Board members Monday unanimously hired Mark Jones to lead the parks department.

Jones, director of sports programs and athletic facilities, has been with the department for 18 years.

Being named parks director fulfills a long-held ambition, he said.

“I’ve always wanted to run my own parks department,” he said. “I didn’t think it would be quite like this, with all of the political stuff going on over the last several months or so, but it’s something I want to do. I have passion for the place.”

Jones said he thinks his transition to director will be smooth. He added that he has worked with most of the parks employees through the years.

“The support is already there,” he said about his co-workers. “They know I started part-time and went through the ranks (and) did my share.”

The parks department has not had a permanent director since Brown demoted former director Ben Wagner to marketing coordinator in late December. Jamie Brinegar, the department’s director of business services, had been managing day-to-day operations since January.

The mayor interviewed nine candidates for the full-time director position. She said there were another 12 who went through background screenings through the human resources department.

The mayor narrowed the field to three finalists — one internal and two external candidates, she said. Individual parks board members interviewed each candidate separately, Brown said.

As the top choice, Jones will make $76,000 a year.

Jones’ ascension

The parks director who hired him into the department in 1996 said he always believed Jones would one day rise to the department’s top position.

“We talked about that years ago,” said Chuck Wilt, who ran the parks department for 33 years until his June 2010 retirement.

At one point, Jones was recruited by the Edinburgh parks department but instead decided to stay and grow with Columbus Parks and Recreation instead, Wilt said.

“He understands the department. I think he loves the department,” Wilt said. “If he’s given the flexibility to lead and manage, he’ll probably stay there for a long time.”

Jones, who is from Edinburgh, started as a part-time adult basketball supervisor while a student at Franklin College. He worked his way up through several positions, including serving as an intern and as the sports coordinator.

He has been director of sports programs and athletic facilities since 2010, in charge of managing the Hamilton Center Ice Area, Lincoln Park and its six softball fields.

Jones has been working to upgrade parks facilities including Hamilton Center, Donner Center, Wigh Soccer Complex at Blackwell Park and four neighborhood parks in Columbus.

Jones has honed collaborative skills over the years that have translated into making Columbus a great place for counting sporting events, Wilt said.

Building sports tourism

Jim Dietz, director of sports tourism for the Columbus Area Visitors Center, said Jones has worked with the center over the past several years to attract sport tournaments to Columbus.

Those tournaments are part of 105 planned sporting events this year in Columbus, projected to generate an estimated $12 million in sports tourism revenue. That compares to 65 sporting events in 2013, generating $8.9 million, according to the visitors center.

“Like anybody that does a good job in their profession, he’s grown with the job,” Dietz said. “We’ve expanded the number of events rather significantly. He’s always kept right up with it.”

As director of sports programs, Jones worked with more than 20 sport-related groups, including the visitors center, sports council, local schools, Express soccer, Columbus Youth Soccer, Columbus Softball Association, Babe Ruth Baseball, Columbus Youth Hockey, Lincoln Center Figure Skating Club, Elite Speedskating and broomball organizers.

As part of his duties with athletic facilities, Jones oversees maintenance work on park property, where maintenance crews mow grass, sweep trails, kill weeds, repair trails and perform routine maintenance on park properties.

“He has a maintenance staff that’s probably second to none,” Dietz said. “It makes our job a lot easier to bring events to Columbus.”

Resolution to simmering issue Jones’ selection ends the uncertainty that has surrounded the parks department since Wagner’s demotion.

Brown claimed that Wagner failed to implement financial controls that would have revealed that Commons restaurant tenant Snappy Tomato Pizza had not paid rent for all of 2013, a total that surpassed $27,000.

The mayor also accused Wagner of having questionable judgment in the use of parks department credit cards and failing to come up with financial options to eliminate a $6 million backlog in park facilities maintenance. Wagner countered that the mayor’s allegations were unfounded.

Wagner resigned as parks marketing coordinator effective May 30. Soon afterward, he was named executive director of kidscommons, the downtown children’s museum.

Parks board members Brian Russell, Nancy Ann Brown and Mary Tucker also resigned their positions, effective May 23, over a disagreement about whether the board or the mayor controls the parks department and its director.

Brown then appointed Jennifer Carroll, Amy Kleinert and Angela Macy to the parks board, joining David Jones, who was named parks board president.

Mark Jones and David Jones are not related, the new parks director confirmed Monday.

Wilt said now that the new board and Jones have filled the vacated positions, he’s hopeful the department will have the full support of the community — and that any negative stigma associated with the department will finally go away.

“The department has great people, and we need to support them,” Wilt said. “We all need to get behind him (Mark Jones) and move forward.”

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