Internship that almost wasn’t started new Fort Wayne Parks director on his career with the department

Steve McDaniel, a 26-year veteran of the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department, became the department's new director April 2. (By Kevin Kilbane of News-Sentinel.com)

When he was looking for summer internships as a college student, Steve McDaniel almost wrote off considering the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department because he thought most of the jobs would involve mowing.

At that time in early 1992, McDaniel, now 46, was a sophomore studying construction engineering at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. Despite his concerns, a teaching assistant in his structures class, who had interned with the parks department, finally persuaded him he should apply there for an internship, he said.

He landed one in the engineering area, and that started McDaniel on the road to what so far has been a 26-year career with the department, including becoming its new director April 2.

“I am honored to be here working for a great department in a great city, and I want to make it the best place for our citizens,” McDaniel said this week.

He succeeds Al Moll, who retired March 30 after 13 years as Fort Wayne Parks director.

GETTING INVOLVED

Born in Naperville, Ill., near Chicago, McDaniel’s family moved to Syracuse in north-central Indiana when he was 5 years old. He grew up there and came to Fort Wayne in 1990 to attend IPFW.

His year-round internship with the parks department from April 1992 through July 1994 gave him a thorough grounding for his full-time career, he said.

His first assignment was to help develop the department’s transition plan for meeting accessibility requirements set out in the Americans with Disabilities Act, he recalled. He had to visit all parks facilities to assess whether they complied with ADA rules.

Even though the parks department has done a lot over the years to make its facilities accessible to people of all abilities, it’s still a “work in progress,” McDaniel said.

With every improvement project they do, parks staff evaluate whether the site is accessible and make updates if necessary, he added.

McDaniel continued working on the maintenance and capital improvements side of the parks department after starting with the department full time in 1994.

For the past 10 years, he has been deputy director of maintenance and operations, which has included being the department’s point person on downtown riverfront development work.

“I think Steve has been excellent at running major capital projects,” Moll said.

McDaniel ensured contractors completed parks projects at or below budgeted cost and that the work was done well, Moll said.

McDaniel now will have the opportunity to grow into more of a community leader, Moll added.

LEADERSHIP ROLE

McDaniel said a couple of things interested him in the parks director job: “Being able to steer the department into the future. Being sure we are providing that quality of life.”

The latter encourages people to stay in Fort Wayne and also contributes to attracting new companies and employees, he said.

In his new job as parks director, McDaniel sees his role as:

• Listening to what the community wants.

• Serving as the face of the department and dealing with some matters so staff can focus on doing what they do best.

• Raising money to support the parks system and future projects.

He feels fortunate Fort Wayne residents always have been very supportive of the parks department.

“Our community has been very giving,” he said.

McDaniel is a good choice to lead the parks department because, in addition to being a good person, he knows the parks system well and is attentive to details, said Jim Anderson, director of the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo. Anderson has known McDaniel since the latter joined the parks department.

“He is responsive to park users and the community,” Anderson said, noting McDaniel has a good ear for listening to people.

“He’s just a good, steady hand at the wheel,” Anderson added.

McDaniel also is a regular park user. He walks the family dog through Kreager Park twice a week, he said. When his children were young, they participated in park department programs such as T-ball, soccer and basketball.

STRENGTHS AND CHALLENGES

McDaniel believes he inherited a department with many strengths:

• A great staff: “They are passionate about what they do and take ownership of what they do,” he said.

• Good support from the city administration and Fort Wayne City Council

• Strong partnerships with other organizations in the community, such as the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo in Franke Park, Historic Fort Wayne at the Old Fort, and Blue Jacket hosting the annual Fantasy of Lights during the holiday season in Franke Park. The partnerships help the parks department offer quality programming, he said.

The parks department also faces a few challenges, such as raising more funding and making ongoing improvements, he said.

The department also must stay aware of new trends in facilities or programming it should provide, he said.

Recent examples include adding outdoor exercise equipment at Kreager Park and renovating two tennis courts at Packard Park into futsal courts. Futsal is played like soccer but in a contained space the size of a tennis court.

LOOKING AHEAD

While McDaniel originally wasn’t sure about applying for an internship with the parks department, he now loves working there.

“I get to work in a park every day,” he said, smiling.

He also gets to see how parks department facilities and programs change the lives of Fort Wayne residents, he said. That can be children playing at a playground, older adults playing cards at a community center, or children and adults enjoying classes, concerts and other activities.

“Being able to bring people together is a good thing,” he said.

Hopefully, he added, they all have smiles on their faces as they enjoy what they are doing.

LEARN MORE

For more about the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department, go call 427-6000 or go to www.fortwayneparks.org.

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