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FORWARD WITH SUCCESS: SUE BLACK [AZ STATE PARKS]

Arizona State Park Director Talks Logistics, Emotion, Balance & Focus At NASPD Conference In Missoula, Montana

Arizona State Park Director Sue Black At the Tubac Presidio Signing A Partnership [Courtesy: AZ State Parks]

Sue Black knows what it takes to make successful parks. Her experiences from Arizona to Wisconsin and back again have shown her abilities both in urban and expansive settings. Now, as State Park Director of Arizona, she continues to throttle forward including spearheading Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park in honor of the fallen firefighters lost in the Yarnell Hill Fire of 2013. The Hotshots heroic actions are making their way to movie screens in the new Josh Brolin/Sony film “Only The Brave”. Black sat down with The Buzz at the National Association of State Park Directors [NASPD] Conference in Missoula, Montana to discuss logistics, balance, emotion and focus.

The Buzz: Being a state park director is about balancing of a couple things. It's logistics, it's the politics, and then it's the actual PR of it.

Sue Black: Yeah…and the emotion.

The Buzz: And the emotion. And you don't want to push too far or too much. This was very true of the event in the Granite Mountains and the eventual memorial park to the fallen firefighters. I wouldn't call it an exercise, but it's sort of a progression.

SB: I guess I would say it comes from years of experience. All of my experiences brought me to that point to be able to have the skillset to find my way through step by step with that…having the vision for the park, working with the public, listening to all of the different sub-committees, raising the money, all of it. It has kind of brought everything together of my whole career to put me at that place at that time that I could help in that way. And it was a real team effort. I mean, it was my team, it was everybody that did this park. You know what I mean? And without APS, the CEO, his name's Don Brandt, without him and what APS with the project meant to him -- they were the first company out there with the tragedy. So when we asked him would he pay for the park, he had to go through his foundation. [And there] he was the right guy at the right time too.

The Buzz: The challenge with State Parks and with the government is funding versus solutions, and finding that balance, and also placating the politicians, but, at the same time, implementing what you need to do. Can you talk about that balance?

SB: Well, not just for this project, [but] yeah. I always tell everybody they're not my State Parks; they're ours. I think the more that you have that team attitude and, even for the elected officials, it's theirs. They have to have that vision and what they want to see for it. I think it's just building those relationships, and then getting that common vision, then figuring out how to execute with the tools at hand, whether that's grant funding your own revenues or philanthropy, whatever it is, it's just putting all those pieces of the puzzle together. And again, like I say, that just comes from years of successes and years of, "Whoops, that didn't work. Let's try this. (laughing) Whoops, that didn't work. Let's try it another way." So it's all of it. I just love the profession because our public spaces really define us as a community. I mean, look at the park that we're in. The way that woman [Donna Glockler] was so eloquent and told us about how the community got behind this park [Fort Missoula Regional Park] and they own it. I'm like, "Right on." She hit the nail on the head. And even the way they used the wood from Montana, and they used the rock from Montana, just so thoughtful, even in the materials. Again, that gives people ownership. It's their park. And I think that there's some communities that may not embrace those public spaces and make them that high of a priority. And I think it shows, especially when I look at kids. And if kids don't have that nice park to go to, I feel like they look at the adults like, "They don't really care about us." Do you know what I mean?

The Buzz: But that’s the balance of a discussion between urban parks  and those parks that have thousands of acres. Could you talk about that, since that's a social thing, too?

SB:  And that's one of the things about my whole career path is going from urban parks in a smaller town to a bigger town to running the State and then running one of the largest urban systems in the country and now returning back to State Parks. I mean, it's all in your head. It's all part of the experience.

Arizona State Park Director Sue Black At Red Rock State Park. [Courtesy: AZ State Parks]

The Buzz: Were there some really glaring sort of balance points that you had to look at saying, "Okay, this works for here but it doesn't work for here?"

SB: It's not cookie cutter by any means. I mean, it's location, location, location in our urban setting. And with the State Parks systems and the recession, I don't think that there was a lot of growth, it was just keeping them open. And now at least in Arizona, we're looking at expanding the system again. So that's really exciting to look for those new properties or take properties that hadn't been open to the public and then start to do the things so that the public can really access those.

The Buzz: Is there certain region in Arizona you think that need helps like that?

SB: Yeah, I really do. When you look at the economic impact of who we are, it's almost like “Let's look at it opposite”. Let's look at a community or a city or small town in rural Arizona that's struggling and let's see if there's an opportunity to open a State Park there and really help the economic engine there. Right now we're looking at area between Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon. So if you know the State at all, for us to not have a park between Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon, if State Parks are truly like a franchise model, you got a gap (laughing)

The Buzz: I agree.

SB: And not only is it beautiful and cooler up there and all the rest of it, you can help the Grand Canyon and take some pressure off there and partner with them in that way. We're also looking at partnering with the city of Paige. There are some things that are happening. It's horseshoe bandits. It's so beautiful if you see the pictures of it. It's iconic. And there's no camping there. There's no campgrounds. So most of the people will just listen to the RV industry and want the [resorts]. So a lot of people are camping at the local businesses or at Walmart. They’re camping at the Big Box because they allow it but we can do better than that at Horse Shoe Band. Plus there's other thing happening in the community where I think that they would really welcome that tourism aspect of what we could bring to the table.

The Buzz: Having just been in Germany for Caravan Salon, the idea is between day parks and stay parks, because you have to know what to implement with certain campgrounds and what to do. You have to pick your battles.

SB: Yeah, well, 74%, or at least that's what the research shows, of the Arizona State park users like to camp in groups. And I think we don't build enough group campsites. When you're out there it's the traditional kind of the trailer court type thing. And then people try to get all of their sites in a row so they can all be together. But why are we designing them like that? Why don't we design them so you can circle the wagons and have one fire pit in the middle? So that's what I'm building. I'm building all these group campsites. It's funny because I brought my team here and I've been telling them this for a couple of years, "We're doing this, we're doing this, we're doing that." Well, now they hear all the experts and these guys say, "Oh, guess what they're doing." I'm like, "I tried to tell you – hello?” (laughing) So in Arizona, we only have 1,500 campsites and that's not many. And granted, when you look at the amount of snowbirds in the winter, we put in the strategic plan to actually double that. Same thing with the cabins. We're putting in 100 new cabins. Because if you don't want to be in a tent and you don't own an RV or rent one, I think there's that missed opportunity…especially when you look at Arizona and all of the international visitors that fly in. I was speaking to Chris, she's the new superintendent at the Grand Canyon, and she said by the entrance [figures], when people come and camp internationally, they buy their stuff here [in the US]. And she said she has piles of camping gear. So we're partnering with them -- it's called our Family Campout Program to try to get families that don't know [how to camp] or they didn't [do it before] -- it's a generational thing that you kind of pass down and they don't know. So we have a program to teach them and now we’re partnering with this equipment. And I'm like, "I'll take the equipment."

Arizona State Park Director Sue Black With The Governor At The Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial. [Courtesy: AZ State Parks]

The Buzz: That’s very progressive. I was talking with the rental companies over in Germany very recently. And literally they ask “Do you want this when you rent your RV? Check off, if you want the surfboard. Check off, you want the hiking boots. All that kind of stuff.

SB:  I just think people are renting everything these days. I do. You don't want to own it. Why would you? Then you gotta store it and insure it and all of it. But back to these cabins. I'm making them dry cabins. So we're building the nice restroom shower building, unisex like we talked about. But for long term maintenance with sinks and toilets and hot water heaters -- I don't want the next parks director to have to come in and work with all that. They're camping…they can walk down and take a shower in the facility that's built for that. But we're putting in 100 [of those cabins] all over the state. And I think that's really going to be popular. We looked at, over Labor Day weekend, what the occupancy rates on them were and I took it to my development team and they're like, "We're full. We should build more of these." I'm like, "We are!” (laughing)

The Buzz: So you look at all the details. Since you've been both at Wisconsin and now Arizona, what is the responsibility of a state park director, from your perspective?

SB: Well, you're responsible for people's free time. They work so hard -- and then that's their one vacation or that's their big holiday. And you really want to make it the best that it can be. And I always think it's about education, too. Flora, fauna, protection…and really to pass on to that next generation -- the whole last child in the wood thing. Because we're all going to be gone and we really have to make sure that that next generation respects the land, cares for it, and understands that we all own these and they're open to the public in perpetuity. They're there. They’re not for sale. They're not for whatever else. I mean, you can partner all you want, but at the same time, we're only stewards of them for a really short time. It's funny because every park system that I've been in, I take all the historic pictures of all the old parks directors. There was one that I did in Milwaukee and I put the pictures, black and white, all up this beautiful staircase because it was an old orphanage and whatever. And I left space after my picture. I didn't make that the end of the wall. Because I said, "I'm not going to be here forever." And you can't think about it that way, because you only get your hands on the wheel for a really short time. I say your responsibility is you get your butt in there every day and work as hard as you can because you've only got so much time to do it. To me, it's not like, "Oh, it's my job. And we'll just see how fast this happens, and we'll just take it like the hotshot." I wanted to get it done. From when I came in, it was a year and a half, something like that when we got that [the Granite Mountain memorial park] done. It’s not going to be 10 years from now when we were still doing bake sales (laughing) That's not okay. It’s really that push and that telling everybody -- with that sense of urgency. That's what I'm getting at. It's the sense of urgency. And some people say that I push too hard or maybe I expect too much from my staff and all the rest of it, but I think it's our duty.

The Buzz: But you also know what you want.

SB: And we want to get it done. So it's a lot of responsibility. Right now, there's only 50 state parks directors, so it's a finite elite group that we're spending the week with. And to learn from each other

The Buzz: Can you talk about bringing the NASPD conference to Sedona next year?

SB: Well, part of it is I want to show off everything that we're doing, plus I want my team to be exposed to this. I feel like not only do I run these properties, I feel like I'm responsible for development of the young professionals or whatever age, but the professionals I want to build the capacity. Even the ones I brought up on this trip what they've seen I think is eye-opening to them. Maybe recruit a little bit  (laughing) and to really kind of run a different type of conference. The 50 of us get together and I want to facilitate more that conversation between the 50 of us in some unique type ways. We're just working on some of the ideas now, but Sedona is beautiful. It's centralized to all where all the parks are. The problem is to go to one of these, you spend two hours on bus to get to a park and two hours to get back. It’s a lot of logistics.

Arizona State Park Director Sue Black Via Selfie On The Missouri River in Montana During NASPD. [Courtesy: AZ State Parks]

The Buzz: The aspect of where you started, going to Wisconsin, coming back. I mean, it seems like you've had all these different experiences. Could you talk about where your love for it came from?

SB: Well, the funny thing is a woman did the presentation on the girl scouts today [at NASPD], and that's kind of where it started for me, and also, going up to my grandpa's cabin. The fishing and doing that in Elko, Wisconsin. But it was the girl scouts that kind of got me. And even in college, I was a camp counselor for the college summers. So my first summer I'm like, "Well, I'm going to go be a camp counselor." And then just living in a tent for three months. You’ve got all these little kids around, and you're teaching them about the outdoors. But my parents made me go to a Big 10 school, and when I started, we were doing engineering and all the rest of it. And somebody came back from [an outdoor] class, and I'm like, "What am I doing in engineering for God's sake? I'm headed over there." The class  was natural resource management. Some of the schools have more of a recreation focus, mine was natural resources.  It was more of the forestry, soil science, all that kind of stuff. And I remember asking somebody, I said, "What's the top job in the state?" And they said, "Well, either secretary, the DNR, or the state parks." And DNRs a little different focus. And I said, "I'm going to be the director of Wisconsin State Parks." And I kind of made up my mind right in college. And then I got a little city, and a little bigger city, and a bigger city. And then I knew I needed to get state experience, so I actually came to Arizona State Parks and asked for an appointment with one of the directors, deputy director, however high I could get, and they said--

The Buzz: When you were in college?

SB: No. This was when I was at the parks director in Green Lake or Portage or one of those small, other towns. But I knew that I needed to get state experience from a different state to come back to be the Wisconsin director. So I walked in, they said, "Well, we don't have any job openings right now." I said, "Well, you will." I think everybody goes to an agency when they see a posting, and they go, "Oh, shoot. I want to work there." I think you go meet with somebody ahead of time, and you scout it out, and you see like, "Is that a group I want to work with, or is that the mission I'm into?" And then you figure it out - because they're going to hire at some time. Well, sure enough, the chief of operations, something happened. So I'm in the interview, I'm like, "Hi. Remember me?" And then when they offered me the job, I think that was a big turning point. And then, sure enough, the guy -- it was like five years later, the guy in Wisconsin retired, and it all worked out. So they [the Wisconsin people] flew down to see me, and I took the secretary of the DNR and the land division administrator, Steve Miller -- and I'm driving back from Tonto Natural Bridge. I'm driving down the road, and we're just chatting, and he goes, "Well, we'd like to make you the director of Wisconsin state parks." Well, it's like, "[screech]." I'm like, "No way," and I started hitting him on his arm (laughing) Yeah. And then I moved back home, and it was great. It really was. It all happened. So now to be back here as the park's director, after being the chief of operations for so long, there wasn't a huge learning curve, and I really knew the properties.


Tim Wassberg

A graduate of New York University's Tisch School Of The Arts with degrees in Film/TV Production & Film Criticism, Tim has written for magazines such as Moviemaker, Moving Pictures, Conde Nast Traveler UK and Casino Player. He enjoys traveling and distinct craft beers among other things.

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