Change at the Park Authority

The Prince William County Park Authority is searching for a new executive director to take over for Peggy Thompson who announced her retirement last week. Thompson has led the Park Authority through a period of exceptional growth but this expansion has come at a price.

Cost overruns and hemorrhaging budgets over the years have eroded confidence in the Park Authority’s leadership structure and a change was due. As the top executive at the authority, Thompson says her April 30 retirement is separate from the organization’s recent troubles and we will certainly take her word for it. Thompson has been in charge of the Park Authority since 1985 and the noticeable difference in the scope of county parks and recreational opportunities has been considerable.

Replacing Thompson will be a challenge for the Park Authority but it also represents a significant opportunity to reform the semi-autonomous organization as it faces new challenges and old dilemmas. It’s been stated that the Park Authority’s leadership will conduct a national search for Thompson’s successor and we hope this is truly the case.

Despite the Park Authority’s recent problems, the position itself should attract plenty of qualified candidates. Prince William County is in great fiscal health, plus the pay and the size of the Park Authority itself is an incentive for the best and brightest to apply.

The Park Authority has been in growth mode for more than a decade and such growth forms fertile ground for fiscal problems. Nothing illustrated this more than the $2.4 million overrun on Valley View Park. A new director will be faced with similar pitfalls in the future and must be capable of reining in costs and “project creep” which has plagued many new park projects.

A new executive director will inherit a different Park Authority than Thompson took over in 1985 when it operated with a $3 million budget. A new director will take control of a Park Authority with $79 million in assets and a $25 million budget in addition to numerous planned projects and improvements countywide.

But the new director will also inherit some intangible issues which must be dealt with and disclosed from day one. This includes the budget problems of the past and a shaky working relationship with the Prince William Board of County Supervisors which may exercise greater oversight on park projects in exchange for supplementing the Park Authority’s budget.

The new director should be an experienced leader and a proven reformer who can work with the current leadership while bringing change to the culture of the organization. Change is tough for any organization or business but the rewards are many if carried out properly by someone willing to move forward.

The Prince William Park Authority has grown to fit the needs of the county’s large, diverse population over the past two decades and Peggy Thompson’s legacy deserves to be attributed to this growth.

While this impending change may not be directly related to the Park Authority’s recent troubles, the task of hiring a new executive director represents an extraordinary opportunity to solve many of its current and future problems.

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