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Randy Distad: The man who minds the parks

As residents start to come out of their homes to enjoy the warmer weather, many head to Farmington's parks or trail system to enjoy some time outdoors.

But how many folks think about what it takes to keep those trails and parks in shape? Probably not too many. But Randy Distad does.

As Farmington's parks and recreation director Distad has been keeping an eye on all of the community's parks and trails -- as well as the outdoor pool, Rambling River Center and Schmitz-Maki Ice Arena -- since he came to Farmington about 6 years ago. Before coming to Farmington, he did the same thing in Northfield.

Here in Farmington, Distad has a staff of 11 full time employees, one part-time employee, and "many seasonal staff," he said, who help keep the community's recreation options in tip-top condition every year.

I sat down with Randy on Tuesday morning and talked to him about just what it takes to keep a whole city's parks system up and running.

What exactly is your job?

My job is to oversee the park and rec department, including the supervision of staff, managing budgets, and directing the day to day operations. I also do long-range planning. That's about it.

What got you interested in parks and recreation in the first place?

Well, I like working with people, I like having fun. When I actually started out, I was going to be a high school teacher. Physical education and health. And then I saw that the job market was not all that great so I tried to find a field that was similar and came across the park and rec field. I took a few classes in it and really liked it and decided I wanted to make that my career.

How many parks do you oversee in Farmington?

We have 23 parks

Any idea how many miles of trails?

We have about 44 miles of trails....

You sound like there's more?

It's always changing. It's between 40 and 45 miles. We have 876 acres of parkland -- 436 of it is active park acreage, the remaining 440 are just kind of the open space, natural areas.

What are some of the bigger challenges you face in your job?

Obviously, finding the resources to do the job. Budgets have gotten tighter, and so we've had to look more closely at what we're doing and what kind of services we're going to provide.

And changing regulations is always a challenge. The playground equipment, the outdoor pool -- we have to stay up to date on those regulations.

When you do new park projects, how long does it take?

Basically, it's at least a two-year project, and I say two years because a lot of it depends on funding. We generally will take the first year to develop a master plan for the park, and of course, we like to first get input from the public. That lengthens the planning process.

Then once we have that plan in place we'll come back and at least make some of the improvements that are identified. If we have the money we'll do them all. But lately, because development has slowed down, we just don't have the funding in place to make all of the improvements that are identified in the master plan. All of our park projects, capital projects, since I've been here, have been developed through development fees. We've not yet used any tax dollars for any of the parks improvement projects.

So what does it take to plan a new park or upgrade an existing one?

Before we do the master plan, we kind of get together as a staff and talk about what are we going to have in this park, what can stay and what needs to be added to kind of change the flavor of the park or the feel of the park....

We like to have in all of our parks, at least our neighborhood parks, playground equipment, some kind of shelter for getting out of the sun or at least having some sort of picnic under, and some kind of a court game, whether its volleyball or basketball. And then of course, trails. We've been in the process of making sure that our parks have loop trails. Loop trails accommodate varying abilities. People don't have to walk long distances, they can walk in a smaller loop for exercise.

Whenever possible, we also look at a ballfield, if a park is big enough to accommodate it. one of the things we've been trying to do is move toward larger neighborhood parks.... It opens up some more opportunities for facilities in a park.

What would people be surprised that you do in your job?

Hmm.... I don't know. For this year, I'm actually going to be running the outdoor pool which is not typical for a director.

And the other thing, our department hasn't done this for a few years now, but we used to run the solid waste division. But that's not something we do anymore.

Otherwise, I don't think there is anything.