Outgoing Parks and Rec director shares update on search for his successor, department’s homelessness response efforts

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Outgoing Lawrence Parks and Recreation Director Derek Rogers speaks during the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board meeting on Monday, Nov. 13, 2023. Rogers is retiring, and his last day is Dec. 1.

With just a few weeks remaining until his retirement, Lawrence Parks and Recreation Director Derek Rogers says he has plenty to be grateful for.

Rogers’ last day is Dec. 1, and he told board members at Monday’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board meeting — his last one before retirement — that the search for his successor will soon be underway. But before then, there’s plenty to reflect on, from the many people he’s been able to work with to the “little wins” he said make the department tick.

“Those things make the department better,” Rogers said. “You may be the one paying the bills and think ‘I don’t do that much,’ or making a shelter reservation, programming classes. Those little wins make so much for a department, and I’m so proud of that.”

Though the city announced Rogers would be retiring back in June and hoped to have completed the hiring process by December, Rogers told the group Monday that the search was delayed so the city could use the same search firm to hire for his position and outgoing finance director Jeremy Willmoth simultaneously. Rogers added that this will mean there certainly will need to be an interim director appointed in the meantime, but called that a “city hall decision.”

Board members at Monday’s meeting lauded a number of Rogers’ actions during his six years as director, namely for how he helped the city navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. He helped to administer the city’s hotel shelter program during winter 2021.

Board chair John Nalbandian, who wasn’t present at the meeting but had prepared written remarks to share, also expressed gratitude for the way Rogers handled recent uncomfortable conversations about an erroneous decision to spray herbicide on a stretch of native prairie behind Prairie Park Nature Center and a much-maligned proposal to introduce entry fees at the city’s recreation centers.

In both instances, Nalbandian said Rogers was able to find a positive way to respond to the substantial public conversation they prompted. For the fee proposal, for example, the department opted to look toward alternatives like pursuing corporate sponsorships and adding special events to generate revenue as alternatives. And Rogers said Monday he was pleased that the incident at Prairie Park has ultimately turned into a much closer relationship between the department and Haskell Indian Nations University.

Also at Monday’s meeting, Rogers gave an update on how the Parks and Recreation Department is assisting with the city’s efforts to address homelessness through actions like posting park hours to discourage overnight camping, cleaning up parks spaces and interacting with people who have been camping at city parks to try to help them find shelter.

But Rogers said managing approximately 4,000 acres of parkland across the city poses challenges when it comes to prioritizing where to narrow that focus.

“To ensure a higher level of compliance, we’ve prioritized enforcing park hours in the downtown park areas, the high-use open space parks, as well as parks near schools and playgrounds,” Rogers said. “Our focus is on promoting a welcoming and community-centered atmosphere.”

Specifically, he said Burcham Park and Riverfront Park on either side of the Kansas River and Naismith Park in southern Lawrence have been target areas for clean-up and other outreach efforts. Rogers said he’s noticed a difference in how safe people feel in those areas as a result.

Rogers also noted that the city and other partners are making an effort to provide emergency shelter that would keep people from being forced to sleep outside.

“The city, from my perspective, is doing everything (it) can to address providing options for the homeless that are in the City of Lawrence right now,” Rogers said. “…But if you’re going to be so focused on ‘I want to live in Lawrence and I want to camp in this park,’ that’s not going to be an option, and you’re going to have to look for other things.”


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