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John Dargle Jr.
New County Parks director John Dargle Jr. is – dare we say? – still green to the job. But he’s got big plans to shake up the status quo.

photo by Sara Stathas

How did you get into parks administration?
I was born and raised in the military, so I traveled all over the world and got exposed to the outdoors. I was commissioned [through the ROTC] into the military right after college, but during that time, I didn’t want to be a PE teacher. [Parks and recreation] seemed to be a little bit bigger and broader opportunity.

What was your rank in the military? 
I was a captain in the Medical Service Corps. I did everything I wanted to do: airborne ranger, combat medic and aviator. The last five years, I flew helicopters. 

Before coming here, you led the Fairfax County, Va., parks department. How would you characterize the public’s perception of parks here versus Fairfax County? 
Here, we’ve got that diversity and geographic equity of our parks – diversity in terms of trails, streams and rivers, our sports complexes, the gardens, the lighthouse, the history and the ballfields. Versus in Fairfax, it’s more suburban sprawl from Washington, D.C., and you have open space. 

What has been your biggest challenge here? 
We’ve got a fabric of the community that is very diverse in terms of socioeconomic [status], ethnicity and culture. And then I’ve got a mature park system. That means the infrastructure is old. There needs to be some loving. It’s not going to be this sexy stuff, you know, new and improved; it’s going to be more behind-the-scenes stuff. Our workforce is aging, too, so my concern is succession planning and grabbing that institutional knowledge.

The parks system won a national gold medal award in 2009. That same year, county supervisors released the “Tale of Two Systems” audit that said the parks system appeared to focus on a few “jewels” and neglect the rest. 
There’s only a limited amount of money that the tax levy can do to help support all the needs. We need the help of partners to get there. [Deferred maintenance] numbers have been thrown out, but we hope our 10-year needs assessment will give us some real numbers and a prioritization process. You hear about the obesity issue and health and fitness. Where is our niche in that? You hear about joblessness. Where’s our niche in that? Economic conditions. Where’s our niche in that? It’s really repositioning us to do that. 

Your predecessor, Sue Black, told Milwaukee Magazine she chose to be a very visible face for the parks because she didn’t have a marketing budget. 
I don’t mind being the face of the organization, but we have very smart people that can speak the speak and walk the walk and have the technical acumen to do that. But the missing piece for us is, we’re doing it more on a reactive mode, and I want to be more proactive by developing a framework or strategy of marketing communications moving forward. 

You’re seeking accreditation by the Commission for Accreditation of Park and Recreation Agencies for the park system.
I’ve been in this business for 18 1/2 years. And I think accreditation is a higher level of achievement than a gold medal. I’ve been there, done that on both accreditation and gold medal agencies. But accreditation to me is the best of the best. You’ve got the best management practices in place. You’re meeting the standards. Not to downplay the gold medal, because we always consider the gold medal the Super Bowl, but it’s an application, you know. It’s a onetime shine. 

What do you think about the county’s beer gardens? 
In Milwaukee, that is our history, legacy and culture, and we can take advantage of that in a park setting. We’ve been successful at Estabrook. We are looking forward to one at Humboldt Park. We also are looking at opportunities at South Shore, and then, if we’re able to get the resources, I’d like to put in a traveling beer garden to test the market – go two weeks at one location and move to another. 

What’s your favorite thing to do in the parks? 
At this age [50], I enjoy walking in the parks and just sort of observing people and listening to the sounds of nature. 

So, what’s your favorite park?
It was the last one I was just in, Kulwicki Park [in Greenfield]. But last week, I was at the Domes for the farmers market. The week before I was at Brown Deer for the cross-country skiing. I love going down to Bradford Beach, but at the same time I like going to Washington Park because of the history, and Lake Park for the views. There is a splendor for all seasons. 

This article appears in the May 2014 issue of Milwaukee Magazine. 
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