What we think: Replacing Shelby County parks director will be no day in the park

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For nearly four decades, Clay Cottongim has been the Shelby County Parks system.

The stunning retirement announcement last week by Shelby County Parks Director Clay Cottongim has left us as startled and grasping at the future as we are sure it has those on the county’s parks board and its foundation.

Mr. Cottongim, it would seem, is the Shelby County Parks system. There are hundreds of people  who contribute to the success of an admirable system, but this program has at the very least has been Mr. Cottongim’s foster child if not his actual baby.

We hedge our comments only because Dr. Ron Waldridge took a concept in place to develop a parks system and saw it through puberty, but Mr. Cottongim’s arrival as a fresh-faced college grad 38 years ago set in motion a growth and expansion spurt that is the envy of many surrounding counties.

In fact, he has taken what was a lightly rooted idea and grown it into a strong and sturdy forest, with which he has planted a vision of connecting trails, additional parkland and a network that would tie into the exploding new parks system being built along Floyd’s Fork in eastern Jefferson County.

But now, suddenly, as of Election Day, Mr. Cottongim is hanging up his khakis, and the execution of that vision will fall to whomever the parks board – led admirably by Magistrate Hubert Pollett – chooses to replace him.

That will be no simple task. Mr. Cottongim may not be irreplaceable – who is? – but he has set a standard that may be difficult to meet.

What an average resident doesn’t see is that there is much more to running a parks program than hiring umpires and lifeguards, choosing people to ride mowers and gas to power them. More appropriately, you might compare this job to managing a vast agriculture operation with a classroom on every corner. There are no simple plans or answers in any of its seasons.

Therefore, whoever might be chosen, we think these elements are essential:

  • A passion for Shelby County and its residents that goes beyond the functional level of service and into the essential level of care.
  • A vision that surpasses the current bottom line and looks to new projects that help improve the fitness level of an overly obese youth.
  • An understanding of embracing not only more parks land but also neighborhoods and communities in developing programs.
  • An innate and almost political ability to work with a variety of levels of people, from 2-year-olds learning to swim to a high school student looking for opportunity to potential donors and boosters of the parks program to retirees trying to extend the qualities of their lives.

Our parks system is an intangible benefit for each Shelby Countian, boosting not only our options for a healthier life but also our investments in our land and businesses. It’s the sort of asset that attracts newcomers, establishes credibility and vastly improves our quality of life.

We were blessed when the governments of Shelbyville and Shelby County came together decades ago to make a parks system possible, and we have been blessed for nearly four of those decades that Clay Cottongim has made that concept part of his family.

Like the heritage of any great family, there must be a legacy that is rich, full and unfailingly honored.

We need a new head of our family. We trust the right person will be there for the job.