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New park director comes on board at a challenging time
There’s a new face at the Vashon Park District. This fall Jan Milligan, the former head of Camp Sealth, became the new director of the district. And as those who are close to the agency note, taking over the bustling organization is no small task.
For over two decades, Wendy Braicks was the face of the park district. Detail-oriented and driven, Braicks grew it from an agency with one office and a handful of small parks to a large district that has about a dozen full-time employees, manages nearly 20 properties, runs on a $1 million budget and either administers or partners with more than 50 youth and adult programs, camps and classes.
Milligan, 57, now takes over the park district at what is arguably one of the busiest times in its history. Last year the agency took ownership of the Vashon Pool — a facility that came with substantially higher maintenance costs than expected — and kicked off an ambitious $1.3 million sports fields project, for which it has struggled to raise funds.
What’s more, Milligan enters the district as it deals with two time-consuming legal issues. A property battle regarding the fields project made it to court last month, and after a messy dispute involving ballet volunteers, the former head of a park district ballet program filed a claim against the agency last month, saying she plans to sue.
Milligan, a warm woman who speaks softly but with authority, said in an interview last week that she’s up to the challenge of heading the busy district.
“Any organization has its challenges at any given time,” she said. “There’s no perfect, clean time in any large organization like this to assume there’s clean sailing.”
Milligan apologized for having what she said were bags under eyes, explaining that she had stayed late at a park board meeting the night before, going over the budget line by line with commissioners.
Due to dropping home values, the district must trim about 3 percent from its 2012 budget. Though it’s less than last year’s 10 percent cut, Milligan said they have made a point to trim without cutting any programs or raising fees.
“We’re managing more and more all the time with the same amount of money,” she said.
Milligan isn’t new to handling a large budget, though. She pointed out that Camp Sealth, which she directed for more than a decade, had about the same size budget, as well the same number of year-round employees and nearly the same acreage when all the district’s parcels are added up.
“There are some funny parallels,” she said.
And though park district commissioners say that they were sad to see Braicks go, they are excited that Milligan brings a new set of skills and knowledge to the district, as well as a fresh eyes. Commissioner David Hackett said Milligan is already helping the board look at the budget in a new way.
“Jan’s got some real good ideas on how we can improve efficiency of operations and increase revenue. ... It’s really been a heck of a lot to ask her to take on, being new and fresh to the job,” he said.
Milligan came to Vashon in 1993 to head Camp Sealth. She attended the camp as a child, and learned to sail on Vashon as well, but never imagined she would return as an adult until one day she received a frantic phone call asking her to take the place of a camp director who backed out at the last moment.
“By Friday I was on the payroll,” she said with a laugh.
What was to be a temporary, interim director position turned into a 15-year career that Milligan says she loved.
Born a city girl in Seattle, Milligan says she has known since she was young that she wanted to work in the outdoors.
“Even when I was a little kid, I always had a yearning to be a kid in the country or on a farm,” she said. “I have no idea why I had that pull, but I did.”
After earning a degree in forestry and wildland recreation management, she directed several outdoor organizations, including two different camps in California, as well as the Washington Trails Association and Volunteers for Outdoor Washington.
Milligan left Camp Sealth in 2008 so she and her husband Doug Milligan, a firefighter and paramedic for the Bellevue Fire Department, could focus on building the couple’s new home on Vashon, a full-time job in itself.
The two have been “saving pennies,” for a decade, Milligan said, to build a 4,000-square-foot home with a water view on Reddings Beach Road. The project nearly consumed their time for three years, though Milligan did continue to volunteer with several Island organizations and was even president of Vashon Rotary for a time.
“I am so glad I did it,” she said. “It’s the dream house.”
Now that their home is nearly complete, Milligan said she is looking forward to hiking more, putting her sailboat back in the water and beginning a new chapter at the park district.
When she heard in April that former director Wendy Braicks planned to step down after more than 20 year at the district, she though the position would be a perfect fit for her. And the more she learned about the district, she says, the more she liked it.
Milligan said she was especially impressed by the number of sports and recreational programs the district manages as well as the volunteer contributions behind several Vashon parks, such as Paradise Ridge, Point Robinson and Ober Park.
“There is phenomenal volunteer energy in the community,” she said.
Milligan admits she’s still getting her bearings at the district and has a lot to learn about its operations, but as she looks to the future she believes volunteer contributions are key to helping the growing agency stay on its feet financially.
She would like to strengthen the park district’s partnerships with community organizations, bring more volunteers into the fold and develop stewardship groups for sites that don’t already have them.
“If the community wants as much from their parks and programs as they wanted when there was a little more money and fewer parks to maintain, it’s an opportunity for the district to facilitate the community pitching in a little,” she said.
LuAnn Branch, another park district commissioner, said the board is pleased that Milligan comes to the district already having relationships with many Island organizations. Milligan is already setting goals to build on those connections, Branch said, as well as to reinvigorate fundraising for the fields project and bring in more revenue from the pool, which runs deep in the red.
“She has some fabulous ideas,” Branch said. “That’s what we’re looking for.”
Both Branch and Milligan agreed that at the park district it’s easy to become distracted by new projects or challenging situations. But Milligan hopes to stay focused on what’s at hand.
“For every challenge,” Milligan said, “I have 10 times as many good opportunities and positive things already working in this district that I need to feed and keep them succeeding.”