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Manager hopes to make Pioneer Park a year-round destination

July 28, 2018

In this Wednesday, July 18, 2018 photo, Pioneer Park manager Donnie Hayes poses in front of Fairbanks North Star Borough Parks and Recreation facility in Fairbanks, Alaska. The 39-year-old father of six began heading up the park last August after arriving from St. Louis where he owned a brewery tour business. (Eric Engman /Fairbanks Daily News-Miner via AP)

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) — When Donnie Hayes was in high school, he was selected for the homecoming court. One of the responsibilities was to make a skit.

As a member of the homecoming court, Hayes was qualified to become homecoming king, but he didn’t care about that. He wanted to make a quality skit, which he created with his best friend.

“All we cared about was putting on a good show. That was the excitement,” Hayes said.

He still feels that way today as the manager of Pioneer Park.

“There is nothing like seeing a kid come in for Halloween Town and their eyes light up,” he said.

The 39-year-old father of six began heading up the park last August after arriving from St. Louis where he owned a brewery tour business. Hayes has about 15 years of parks and recreation experience, including as Parks and Recreation director in Petersburg. In October, he will be sworn in as the president of the Alaska Recreation and Park Association.

Some of the changes at Pioneer Park since Hayes took over include a new partnership with The Folk School Fairbanks and a new season pass offered on the Crooked Creek and Whiskey Island Railroad.

The mini golf course has been removed, leaving a gaping unused space in the middle of the park about the size of a basketball court. Hayes is coy about what he plans to do with the empty space, saying he is waiting for approvals from borough lawyers and risk managers. An announcement will be made by the end of the summer, he said.

Hayes is looking at adding more hands-on activities at the park for visitors, and he wants to boost wintertime activities as well.

“You look at great places like for example the children’s museum downtown,” he said. “Those kids who go in the children’s museum are learning cool things by doing.”

Hayes grew up in a town outside of San Francisco known as Antioch, California. With both the mountains and the ocean nearby, recreation was a big part of his life.

Hayes had originally planned to become a dentist but soon realized “that just wasn’t where I was going to be happy.”

“I need creativity,” he said.

His wife encouraged him to pursue a career in recreation and he earned a degree in outdoor recreation leadership at Brigham Young University in Idaho.

Hayes opened a new aquatics center in southern Utah and served as community event organizer in Rexburg, Idaho.

Managing a park offers ample opportunity for creativity, he said, from designing flower beds to planning community events.

“Special events are all about creativity,” he said.

The job at Pioneer Park opened at a time when Hayes said he and his wife were missing Alaska. He arrived at a good time. The park turned 50 last year and is showing signs of age. Change is in the air. The historic Wickersham House recently got a new roof. Pioneer Hall is next. The Folk School is planning to offer classes by the end of the year.

Hayes faces challenges as well, including the decaying state of the Riverboat Nenana, a National Historic Landmark. Hayes said he is heartened by the community support for the sternwheeler. A nonprofit to raise money for its renovations is under development.

Community partnerships are vital to Pioneer Park, Hayes said. The park partners with the aviation community, the Fairbanks Arts Association and Friends of the Tanana Valley Railroad to name a few.

“We rely heavily on our nonprofits and our local businesses that make Pioneer Park their home,” he said.

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