Jason Shamblin liked West Michigan each time his family visited, so he decided he might as well work and live here. When the opportunity arose, he applied to become Ottawa County’s new parks and recreation director. He got the job, succeeding long-time Ottawa County Parks Director John Scholtz, who retired after 32 years and oversaw the massive buildup of a system that today consists of 27 parks and a dozen open areas that collectively cover more than 7,000 acres. Shamblin, who’s worked in parks administration for 21 years and started with Ottawa County on June 24, previously served as assistant director of MetroParks in Butler County, Ohio. He spoke with MiBiz about how parks fit into a community’s economic development strategy.
What attracted you to seek the job in Ottawa County?
My family and I have vacationed the past four summers in Western Michigan. Probably after the first year, my wife and I talked about ‘wouldn’t it be neat to move to Western Michigan?’ Casually, I’ve had my eye on the jobs here as I would see them, and when I saw this position post and talked to a colleague and a friend who works here in Michigan, he educated me on the quality of the parks here in Ottawa County and encouraged me to apply for it. Once I came to visit and visit the parks, you could tell the quality and the pride in the design of all the facilities. I was hooked probably the first time.
How does a park system fit overall into what a community offers?
Obviously, I picked this profession because I think it’s important and it’s more than just a job. It’s kind of my lifestyle and what we do. Each community and the folks in the community define that, and obviously here in Ottawa, with the existing parks system, it’s a priority to the folks who live here. Parks really are a quality of life factor. They attract and keep families. As families look for places to live, they look for schools, libraries and parks. It really enhances the quality of life of a community.
Does that quality of life factor apply to economic development and attracting and retaining businesses and talent?
If you look at the cities and communities and regions that are successful in attracting young talent and talent in general — and keeping them — they are the ones that have the parks and the different amenities that parks (offer). It’s hand in hand, definitely.
What’s your vision for the Ottawa County parks system?
Continuing the progress on the different greenways that have already been started obviously is one (priority). … I want to jump in and continue the great work that John did for 30-plus years. Obviously, the Grand River Greenway was a big part of that and that has been a big project, but it’s also about continuing and hearing the focus that the community wants. Part of what I’m doing now is trying to meet people and meeting different groups, and hearing what their vision and their desires are, and see where the parks system should go. Right now, I’m in the learning phase.
(Editor’s note: The Grand River Greenway is a $21.2 million initiative to create a 26.3-mile network of trails along the Grand River from Jenison to Grand Haven.)
What makes a great park?
It varies from person to person. A great park for each individual is different because everybody has different opinions on what they want. A park is a place where people can go and recreate and spend their quality time. In today’s day and age, there’s less and less of that. When I look at a park, I look at not being overdeveloped. That’s one thing. I’ve seen too many examples of parks where they get overdeveloped and there’s too much going on there. For me, it’s big woods, waterways and trails. Those are my natural resources parks.
What have you learned about this area in your early days on the job?
Everybody’s working together, from leaders at the county level all the way down. I’ve just been impressed with how much everybody’s working toward a common goal. It’s been exciting to come in and be part of that.
What drew you to this line of work?
As a teenager and a 20-something, and in my first couple years of college, I didn’t ever imagine it as a profession. It was when I was talking to people, probably in my second year of college, about declaring a major and finding out what I wanted to do, and learning about natural resources and the education component and administration of natural resources — that’s when I transferred to Hocking College (in Nelsonville, Ohio). That’s where I did my natural resources degree and really fell in love with it. There’s an administrative role, but the great part of what we do is that a lot of it is people based. We not only help with the quality of life but we’re helping people. We’re helping people today, but we’re also helping people for generations to come.
What’s the best advice you’ve been offered since you started?
Just take your time and learn it. This parks system has been around a while. Take your time and learn it, and that’s what I’m doing: asking lots of questions and trying to understand how we got to where we are, and then understand people’s vision of where we’re going.