Reminiscing about the 13 years he's spent building Colorado Springs' network of trails, open space and parks, TOPS manager Chris Lieber speaks the language of a city government lifer.
Take, for instance, the process that led to Red Rock Canyon opening in 2004: "Hundreds came together for a common vision," Lieber remembers. "That's something I enjoy."
But come May 21, Lieber's headed to the private sector. When the 42-year-old joins the local consulting firm KezziahWatkins, he'll become the latest employee of the parks division to find refuge from a shriveling budget.
Could it be called a "brain drain?"
"I think there is some truth to that," Lieber says. "The truth is, it's been a challenging time to be a public servant."
The city's efforts to find private sponsors to maintain park trash cans may have garnered national attention, but behind the ribbing there's a dismal reality: The parks, recreation and cultural services division's general fund budget, which was close to $20 million in 2008, is down to about $3 million this year.
That means fewer reasons for experienced employees to stay.
Take, for instance, Clay Shuck, who oversaw a network of six pools, swimming at Prospect Lake and frolicking at two outdoor fountains as the city's aquatics supervisor.
With most of those facilities closed or put into private hands, Shuck — president of the National Recreation and Park Association's aquatics branch — was facing a summer in which he'd manage only the facilities at the Cottonwood Creek Recreation Center.
"Clay's job would have shrunk tremendously," says Paul Butcher, director of the parks division.
Instead, Shuck decided to become deputy manager of recreation for South Suburban Parks and Recreation, a multi-city district south of Denver. Having started as a 17-year-old lifeguard, Shuck says he wanted to spend his entire career with the city.
Then the cutting started and opportunities dimmed.
"I'm not seeing any upward mobility occurring," he says.
Another recent departure is Scott Thompson-Buchanan, a geographic information systems administrator who joined the federal government.
"He was a real loss," Butcher says, noting that Thompson-Buchanan had the mapping expertise to resolve property line disputes, plot trails and even catalog locations of the city's 144,000 sprinkler heads.
With Thompson-Buchanan gone, Butcher says, the city's information technology department will do some "backfilling." He adds that he still has key people to keep the division running and parks safe, but he doesn't shy away from the fact it will be different when or if funding is restored.
"I've lost a lot of institutional memory," Butcher says.
Lieber has been with TOPS since the program started in 1997 to dole out funds collected through a voter-approved sales tax. While he's helped finalize deals for Stratton Open Space, Corral Bluffs and Red Rock Canyon, another longtime goal has been to work toward completing the purchase of Section 16 from the State Land Board. Negotiations to do just that came apart last year over valuing the land, but now are set to begin again.
Susan Davies, director of the Colorado Springs Trails and Open Space Coalition, is hopeful Lieber and others have laid the groundwork for the deal to go through. Beyond that, she says, it's harder to predict the impact of Lieber's departure.
"It will leave a hole," she says.
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