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New directors, new land: ‘Season of change’ for state parks

December 24, 2018

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Since becoming director of the South Carolina State Park Service this fall, the question Paul McCormack has asked most often is, “Why?”

The organization is in a “season of change,” McCormack said, which has brought out some fundamental questions, such as: Why is this done? And why do we do it this way?

Some changes have been operational. The agency changed reservation software in August and is improving the parks’ web presence.

But the most dramatic change is with its leadership and staff.

Since October of last year, 37 of the South Carolina State Park Service’s uniformed managers, including all four regional chiefs, have moved into new positions.

Many, including McCormack, were promoted from other jobs in the park system, but others are entirely new. In August and September alone, the department hired or promoted 19 people.

The staffing changes occurred partly because of a wave of retirements after the Teacher Employee Retention Incentive, or TERI, ended this summer. That program had allowed state employees to retire but continue working for up to five years, depositing their retirement benefits into a special account.

Though the loss of institutional knowledge has been difficult, McCormack said it’s been a welcome challenge for many rangers and park managers who were given the chance to move up the ranks.

The promotions also triggered a first for the South Carolina State Park Service: When Joy Raintree was promoted from her position as manager of the Redcliffe Plantation State Historic Site, she became the first female regional chief in the agency’s 85-year history.

“Because we’re in such a big transition, I feel like it’s important for me to get it right,” Raintree said in October.

After about five months on the job as chief of the Sandhills Region, where she oversees 14 different state parks, things were still pretty challenging, she said.

When she took her first position as park interpreter at Redcliffe, Raintree quickly realized she had “found her niche.” As with many other park sites, she was part-historian, part-custodian. She liked it, groundskeeping and all, so when she was offered her first opportunity to rise up the ranks, Raintree was hesitant.

But she decided to take the job and, as the site’s manager, had the chance to make some of her visions for Redcliffe real. She fought for funding for a groundskeeper, and the staff worked to highlight more of the site’s African American history. The transition to becoming regional chief, however, proved more taxing.

The job took her further out of her comfort zone than she had been before. At the Park Service headquarters in Columbia, McCormack and his team were feeling the strain of the transition, too. The staff was using spreadsheets of names and contact information just to keep track of which rangers and managers were working in the state’s 47 different parks, he said.

Both Raintree and McCormack credit McCormack’s predecessor, Phil Gaines, with guiding the new leadership team through the changes. Though he officially retired in August, Gaines is still a prominent player at the Park Service, and his practices will likely stick around even longer.

Gaines spent his last day on the job the same way he spent his first: mowing grass, cleaning bathrooms and picking up trash.

“It was special,” Gaines said, without a hint of sarcasm, of his last day as director.

It was something he had wanted to do for years, he said — end his career in the same place he started it: at Kings Mountain State Park, just below the North Carolina border.

But things had changed quite a bit in the 37 years since Gaines started as a Kings Mountain park ranger, thanks largely in part to the procedures and philosophy he helped to introduce.

“When Phil was starting out, it was you keeping grass cut, keeping the bushes trimmed, and if people didn’t show up, that was OK,” said McCormack, who trained under Gaines as assistant director before taking over the top spot in September.

So when the park service decided to pursue a new strategic plan, Gaines, while working as an operations specialist in the Park Service’s central office, jumped at the chance to help draft the organization’s “Vision for the 21st Century.” Later, in 2000 and 2005, he started to see that vision realized as assistant director and director.

The “new culture” shifted the mindset closer to that of a business, Gaines said, putting a greater emphasis on marketing, visitor experience and updated facilities.

The strategy paid off, too. From 2006 to 2018, the South Carolina Park Service saw its annual revenue grow from about $18.3 million to $30.7 million.

That also helped shift the Park Service to become an almost entirely self-sufficient enterprise, said Duane Parrish, director of the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, under which the Park Service is organized. The Park Service now covers about 95 percent of its operational costs. A decade ago, it raised only about 73 percent of its expenses.

For the staff, Gaines wanted to focus on empowerment, something that he said is “an overused phrase and an under-utilized process.” Yes, a park ranger still needed to be skilled with a mower and a plunger, Gaines said, but he wanted rangers to feel they could make decisions independently.

“He trusted that the people on the ground knew their park better than anybody,” said Raintree.

Since stepping down as director, Gaines has started teaching at his alma mater, Clemson University, and he continues to help the parks department with its recent land acquisitions.

“I’ve failed retirement miserably,” Gaines joked.

One of Gaines’ major post-retirement projects is the preparation of St. Phillips Island. Purchased last December for $4.9 million, the barrier island that once served as conservationist and billionaire Ted Turner’s private getaway is the state’s newest addition to its parks network.

When the island is open to the public, it will be part of Hunting Island State Park, another park that has taken on a new leader since last fall. J.W. Weatherford became park manager in October of last year.

The last year and two months has been somewhat of a “whirlwind,” Weatherford said. In that span, he’s managed the gradual reopening of Hunting Island after it sustained heavy damage from Hurricane Irma, prepared a 4,682-acre island to be added to the park and had his third child.

“Opening a new property leaves a legacy,” he said, adding it’s something his kids can tell his grandkids and they can tell their grandkids. “They can say ‘Old Man Weatherford’ was the very first park manager at that park!”

After giving the first tours of St. Phillips Island in November, Weatherford is starting to see some of the work of the last year really come to fruition.

“There’s a lot of excitement at the parks right now,” Weatherford said. At Hunting Island, Weatherford has had six park rangers get promoted in the last 14 months, he said.

Things have started to turn the corner for Raintree, too. With staffing changes slowing down and her comfort with the job growing, she said she’s starting to carve out that same “niche” as a regional chief that she first felt as a park interpreter at Redcliffe.

“You know when you walk outside and you feel that first breath of fall air, and it’s a little bit cooler?” Raintree said. “That’s kind of how it is here for us now.”

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Information from: The Post and Courier, http://www.postandcourier.com

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