Sanderson retires after leading rec department

GLADSTONE — After two decades with the city of Gladstone, Parks and Recreation Director Nicole Sanderson retired last week, ending her time at the helm of fun and relaxation in the city known as “The Year Round Playground.”

“I am leaving the department really well off. We have a strong rec board that really believes in recreation in Gladstone, and … there is a long-term plan in place for the park so whomever takes over the position will have a good idea of where to go next if they choose,” she said.

Sanderson’s work for Gladstone began even before her employment officially began with the city. She first moved to Gladstone from California in 1994, eventually working for America’s Promise, a national organization which aims to support children and youth. Through that work, Sanderson developed the city’s after school program, which ran for many years.

Sanderson was first hired by the city when then-City Manger Brian Horst needed someone to run special events for the city and help with the city beach. Because Sanderson had been a lifeguard in California, he thought it would be a good fit.

“It was supposed to be a part time gig, and after the first week I never worked less than 40 hours a week,” she said.

After years under Parks and Recreation Director Joe Dehlin as programs coordinator and assistant director, Sanderson took over. She became the first woman to hold a department head position with the city for any length of time.

“I took it very seriously, and found that Gladstone was very receptive to all the recreational activities that they already had and they wanted more,” she said.

Because parks and recreation aren’t typically seen as “essential services” the same way public safety and public works are, Sanderson was often tasked with finding unique ways of funding projects — often using grants to meet the matching fund requirements of other grants, driving down out of pocket costs for the city.

“We were very successful for years and years not using tax dollars in order to rebuild and build new facilities. I’m super proud of that. … I never even wrote a grant before I was here, and everybody told me, ‘that can’t be done,’ ‘you can’t do that;’ ‘nobody does that.’ We did that, and we did that numerous times,” she said.

Over the course of her time with the city, Sanderson believes she’s successfully brought in more than $4 million for parks projects. Her first matching grant project, the fishing pier, was funded by six grants, and because it was constructed using city labor the project actually netted the city a profit.

She has also worked hard to improve and promote the ski hill at the John and Melissa Besse Sports Park, which has been a community staple for decades but has struggled to turn a profit because of its high operating cost.

“The ski hill is operational with state-of-the-art snowmaking abilities and equipment that it should easily make money this year, if we’re allowed to open due to COVID,” said Sanderson. “Brian Horst, back in the day, told me, ‘Nicole, just make that sports park not cost any money.’ I can finally say, ‘Brian, after 20 years, the sports park is probably going to make money.'”

In Sanderson’s time, all of the city’s park facilities have been upgraded, with the exception of the chalet at the ski hill. It’s one of the things she hopes her replacement will address.

“I just hope that they get somebody in there with a vision because Gladstone truly, truly does appreciate all the recreational activities and facilities,” she said.

Sanderson also said she is sad she didn’t get to see the new park plan be implemented and that her replacement will face challenges due to the recent high water levels, which washed away the city’s boardwalk.

When reflecting on her time with the city, Sanderson had positive things to say about city commissioners — even those she disagreed with — and members of the city’s recreation board, but she teared up when remembering all the youth that worked in the park system over the years.

“Everybody gripes about kids these days. I don’t know. I was fortunate. I got all the good ones,” she said.

Sanderson doesn’t have her future planned out yet, but she hasn’t ruled out continuing her work with parks.

“I’m going to take a little bit of time off … and spend some time with my family and possibly relocate and then possibly do this again. I wouldn’t mind going back into parks and recreation. It is very rewarding.”


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