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Shelby County Parks board member R.H. Bennett will serve as interim parks director as the board begins to consider candidates to replace long-time parks director Clay Cottongim.
Parks Chairman Hubie Pollett said the board decided that was the easiest and most logical route to go until a new director can be chosen.
“We just decided that because we knew a lot of people were going to be applying, that we would just take one of the board members for the next couple of months, to let them kind of be the head of it until we decided who will be the director,” he said.
Pollett said Bennett was chosen because he agreed to serve in that capacity and because he is dedicated to his service on the board.
“Also, he’s close by, and he spends a lot of time around the parks, so he can get there as quick as anybody, if need be, and I’m kind of the backup for him, so as a board, we decided that’s the way we would do it,” Pollett said.
Cottongim, 58, who has been parks director for 34 years, announced his retirement in late November and left in December.
Pollett said he expects to have a new director on board by early spring.
“I think sometime in March is a reasonable expectation,” he said.
Both city and county officials who worked with Cottongim have expressed regret that he is leaving, but they said they wish him the best, as well as praise for his efforts in shaping parks and recreation into what it is today.
“The parks have grown so much under his guidance; when he came here, all we had was a couple of ball fields,” Shelby County Judge-Executive Rob Rothenburger said when he learned Cottongim would be retiring.
When Cottongim started as director in 1978, although the land for Clear Creek Park had been purchased in 1972, the parks system consisted of only three baseball fields.
Since then, the parks board, established in 1970, now encompasses 12 park properties encompassing more than 812 acres.
Cottongim said he is especially proud of Shelby Trails, a nearly-400-acre equestrian park in Simpsonville that opened in 2011, and Red Orchard, established on Kentucky Street when Clarence Miller donated his family farm to the parks system a few years ago.
He said he hopes that whoever replaces him will continue to work to expand the parks system even more.
“The number one priority to me would be to acquire more land adjacent to Clear Creek Park for more expansion of the athletic fields, softball, baseball and even football and lacrosse and to expand Clear Creek Park because it's so centrally located,” he said.
Pollett said he hopes that Cottongim will agree to be a part of the committee that selects the new director.
“I am getting a committee together and we will put together a job description and get things going to start the hiring process,” he said. “I’d like to have Clay’s input choosing his successor.”
In the meantime, things are proceeding smoothly in Cottongim’s absence, at least so far, said Jeremiah Heath, director of the Family Activity Center.
“Nothing has come up yet that we can’t handle, but if it does, then we will get a hold of R.H.,” he said. “But nothing like that has happened.”