City severance package entices 35-year employee

September 1, 2009

By Warren Kagarise

Al Erickson, city parks manager, stands in front of the Issaquah Community Center as young people and their moms gather for lunch on the front steps. By Greg Farrar

Al Erickson, city parks manager, stands in front of the Issaquah Community Center as young people and their moms gather for lunch on the front steps. By Greg Farrar

A gargantuan aerial shot of Issaquah dominates a wall of Al Erickson’s city Parks & Recreation Department office. The map dates from the early part of the decade; land where part of the Issaquah Highlands would eventually rise is nothing but tawny dirt. Sprawling Central Park was little more than a planner’s sketch.

Now, as Erickson prepares to retire after nearly 35 years as a city parks employee, crews are at work in the highlands adding artificial turf to a pair of Central Park fields.

The changes at Central Park are representative of the changes the city park system — and Issaquah itself — has undergone since Erickson signed on with the city three decades ago as a recent Western Washington University grad. Erickson, 57, retired as parks manager Aug. 31.

Parks & Recreation Director Anne McGill said Erickson’s role as a person who shaped the city park system cannot be overstated.

“He had a huge influence on our whole quality of life in Issaquah,” McGill said.Erickson, who helped turn Tibbetts Valley Park into reality in the mid-1980s, described the last major project of his tenure as a “monumental milestone.” The artificial turf on the Central Park fields will be a first for Issaquah.

Erickson’s colleagues said his manner and work ethic were essential to the growth of the parks department and the city park system.

“He’s very calm, very focused,” McGill said. “He always looks out for the greater good of our community and how the most people can use a public facility.”

Though Erickson had planned to retire within the next few years, a severance package offered to city employees hastened his decision.

City officials are working to patch a $3.6 million budget hole and cut costs for 2010. Employees who accept the package receive four months’ pay. Longtime employees, such as Erickson, will receive an additional month of pay for every 10 years they worked for the city, for a maximum of six months’ pay.

Erickson, whose grandparents emigrated from Scandinavia to Issaquah in the early part of the 20th century, grew up in Issaquah, graduated from Issaquah High School and returned during college for a summer internship with the city Park Board.

When the city created a parks department in the early 1970s, staffers pulled double duty maintaining parks and coordinating recreation activities. Kerry Anderson, the first city Parks & Recreation director, recalled hiring Erickson in 1973. Back then, the department had only three full-time employees. Today, it has about 60.

Erickson had just earned a parks and recreation degree from WWU. Anderson said the nascent department needed staffers who could juggle multiple tasks.

“We got our feet dirty and our hands dirty doing that,” Anderson said.

In the mid-1980s, city crews began work on Tibbetts Valley Park. The project was the first large-scale effort undertaken by the parks department team. Anderson said Erickson was crucial to the development of the park.

“When Al and I look back, one of the most fun times we had was building that park,” Anderson said.

Anderson retired in 2000 and now owns a landscaping business in Spokane. McGill fills Anderson’s former role.

Today, Tibbetts Valley Park is 34 acres of sports fields, tennis courts, playground equipment and picnic tables.

Erickson listed said Tibbetts Valley Park was one of the projects of which he was most proud.

Another big project launched during his tenure will be completed after he departs. Planners hope Cybil-Madeline Park will become a flagship of the city parks system. The park along Issaquah Creek will feature “trails, picnics, open meadows, that kind of thing,” Erickson said.

Long before he began his parks career, his family had put down deep roots in Issaquah. In addition to his pioneer grandparents, his father, Tauno Erickson, served as a city councilman. His mother, Camilla Erickson, 91, lives in the city.

Erickson describes his long parks career as a way to give back to the community. He’s quick to praise the colleagues he’s worked with over the years.

“I’ve been fortunate to work for two wonderful parks directors,” Erickson said.

McGill, in turn, said she would miss his steady leadership.

“We’ve watched him accomplish a lot and he’s always done it with courage and grace,” she said.

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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