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New parks superintendent wants to gain public’s trust

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On her first day on the job Tuesday, Erin E. Gardner braved the rain by going to Thompson Park.

As the city’s new Parks and Recreation Department superintendent, Mrs. Gardner headed over to the historic park to introduce herself to employees. She also met with staff members at the Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds and took a tour of some of the facilities.

The 33-year-old Adams Center native is coming on board at a time when the department is still weathering the storm after a turbulent year. Last spring, City Council members learned the department’s two-person staff failed for years to bill users of the Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds and other city facilities and did not collect tens of thousands of dollars in money owed to the city. An external audit blasted the department for handling its finances.

“I know the department has to gain the public’s trust again,” she said, standing in the Watertown Ice Arena, where Sgt. Slaughter and a troop of other professional wrestlers will put on a show Friday night. “But I’m up to the task.”

As a result of the financial woes, the department went through a major restructuring plan. The City Council splintered the department off from the Department of Public Works to form its own department.

In the coming days and weeks, the 1997 South Jefferson High School graduate needs to familiarize herself with the programs, services and events the department offers, Mrs. Gardner said, adding she also will be involved in trying to lure the Thousand Islands Privateers hockey team to play at the ice arena next season.

She will also help hire a person to fill the newly created program manager position.

“Building a team at Parks and Recreation will be a key to her success,” said City Manager Mary M. Corriveau, who appointed her to the $69,000-a-year position last month.

Mrs. Gardner will have expanded responsibilities as a department head and act as a liaison to bigger users of the city’s facilities. It will take some time for her to get to know the major players from the Watertown Wizards, concert promoters and the Jefferson County Fair, Mrs. Gardner said.

On Tuesday, Robert D. Simpson, Jefferson County Fair president, stopped by to say hello to the new superintendent. He said he looks forward to working with her.

“It’s unfortunate all the problems that happened,” he said. “I don’t know who’s to blame, but it’s a positive that it’s going to be a stand-alone department reporting directly to the city manager. I think she’ll do fine.”

If she needs advice, she can turn to an old high school friend, Jesse Hollenbeck, who works as the recreation supervisor in the town of Pittsford, near Rochester.

“It’s good to know that I can go to someone to bounce some ideas off of,” she said.

Mrs. Gardner came from Bluefield Manor Housing Inc., an 85-bed senior living facility in Auburn that is affiliated with Ives Hill Retirement Community. She served as administrator and oversees the management and day-to-day operations and maintenance at Bluefield Manor.

She graduated from Jefferson Community College in 1999, received a bachelor’s degree in therapeutic recreation from Utica College two years later and then earned a master’s degree in adult education from the University of Phoenix. She replaced former superintendent Jayme M. St. Croix, who retired in August after the financial problems surfaced.

As a kid growing up, the new superintendent learned to ice skate at the arena, went to the county fair every year and attended numerous events at the city-owned facility, she said.

“I did all of my figure skating here,” she said.

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