DECADES OF FUN: Outgoing Parks and Rec director has seen massive transformation of city’s recreation scene
For more than four decades, John Rodda has been one of the busiest men in Anchorage — which is why he considers himself the luckiest.
The Municipality of Anchorage’s Parks and Recreation director is responsible for overseeing a $22 million annual budget, 10,946 acres of parkland, more than 300 full- and part-time employees, 250 miles of trails, 223 parks, 110 athletic fields, 82 playgrounds, 11 recreation centers and a handful of swimming pools. It suits him.
“I’m not a very good sit-still person,” said Rodda, who in addition to serving as Anchorage parks director is also director of the Eagle River-Chugiak Parks and Recreation Department.
But after a 45-year career working with or for the Municipality of Anchorage, Rodda is about to trade his downtown office in City Hall for a cabin near Big Lake. The man whose fingerprints are on nearly every public recreation project over the last four decades is stepping down at the end of the month.
“Many people have encouraged me not to accept his retirement,” joked Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, the ninth mayor Rodda has worked with during his career.
Berkowitz was one of several people to praise Rodda’s energy and ability to do whatever was needed to get the job done.
“He’s an exceptional public servant,” Berkowitz said. “He gets things done, he pays attention to what the community wants and he is able to work under incredibly difficult circumstances.
“And he does much of this with short pants.”
Rodda’s trademark shorts-and-pullover look is emblematic of the 70-year-old’s low-key style. Former Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan grew up across the street from Rodda on West 12th Avenue. He said Rodda has always been energetic, hard-working and pragmatic.
“He really is just such a hardworking guy,” Sullivan said. “More public servants should emulate the work ethic he put in.”
Eagle River-Chugiak Parks and Recreation Board of Supervisors president Brian Fay said Rodda’s influence on the community can’t be overstated.
“He’s been absolutely amazing. He has had kind of a singular vision for making things good for Eagle River-Chugiak,” Fay said.
Rodda’s first job as a facilities manager was in the mid-1970s, when he ran the Anchorage Sports Arena (the large, quonset-style building on Fireweed Lane that’s now home to Arctic Office Products) as a contractor for the city. At that time he was approached by Mayor George Sullivan (Dan’s father) about helping usher in a new wave of sports facilities in the growing city.
“More and more youth were playing hockey,” Rodda recalled.
With Rodda as manager, the municipality opened the first Ben Boeke Ice Arena in 1975. The rink was a success, and a second indoor facility was built three years later. The “Project 80s” era was a boom time for the municipality, which in 1983 opened Sullivan Arena, for which Rodda was hired as operations manager.
The flurry of activity wasn’t over yet. That same year the Dempsey Anderson Ice Rink opened, and in 1984 the Fire Lake Arena opened in Eagle River thanks largely to the efforts of local legislators Sam Cotten and Rick Halford, who helped secure state funding. Rodda said folks like Dempsey Anderson, Harry McDonald, Ray Reekie and Frank Nosek were also instrumental in moving the projects forward.
While the Eagle River facility was being built, Rodda said locals like McDonald were urging him to move to the area and manage the new rink. He relented, moving with his wife and two sons to Eagle River and serving as manager at the facility — which was named for McDonald after his death in 1994 — until 1997.
The mid-’90s were a busy time for Rodda, a lifelong athlete and coach who became president of the local Arctic Winter Games host society when the community hosted the circumpolar athletic and cultural event in 1996. Rodda said people like Rick Mystrom and Jim and Susie Gorski encouraged him to take the job. But while that event would ultimately prove to be a huge success, Rodda said some in the community were tepid when the idea was first broached.
“It was a massive deal. We had a lot of naysayers,” he recalled.
Rodda said the community rallied to put on the event, which brought more than 1,600 athletes and coaches to the Chugiak-Eagle River area. And when they arrived, there were more than 2,000 volunteers waiting to greet them.
“A lot of people literally rolled up their sleeves,” he said.
The games were both culturally and financially successful, Rodda said, and the Games committee ultimately paid back all of the $100,000 grant and used what was left over to create the Chugiak-Eagle River Foundation, a nonprofit that gives grants and scholarships to local projects and students.
“That’s unheard of,” Rodda said of the Games’ success.
The event served not only to showcase the area to the outside world, but to forge closer ties between the former rival communities of Chugiak and Eagle River.
“It brought everybody together,” he said. “That was really cool.”
Rodda took a full-time job with the municipality in 1997 overseeing Chugiak-Eagle River parks. But his job has evolved from managing local parks to overseeing all parks in the muni a decade ago. When Rodda was asked by his old friend Dan Sullivan, the former mayor, to become Anchorage Parks and Rec director in 2009, he initially balked. But Sullivan — who served as general manager for the Arctic Winter Games — wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“I said, ‘I want to stay out here,’” he recalled. “And he said, ‘You’ve got Mirror Lake to Girdwood.”
Other projects Rodda has been involved with include a unique public-private partnership that allowed a private company to mine gravel in exchange for building Loretta French Park, a McDonald Center expansion, the construction of the Beach Lake Chalet and several inclusive playgrounds.
Rodda said one of the biggest reasons for his success has been the support of Chugiak-Eagle River residents, who voted to impose a one mill tax levy to fund local projects. Since bond funding has typically been difficult to obtain for the northern neighborhoods, Rodda said, the dedicated funding has allowed Chugiak-Eagle River parks to operate more freely.
“There’s not as many external influence,” he said. “We are a distinct service area.”
Muni-wide challenges have increased over the year, he said, as budgets have shrunk and the department has been forced to shoulder more of the load caused by a growing homeless population. But Rodda said he’s reacted accordingly, organizing the city into 10 distinct “zones” in order to make his employees more efficient and responsive to local needs.
“We retooled so we could keep doing what we do,” he said.
He said his guiding principal has always been to conserve resources to make dollars go as far as possible while giving the public the best parks possible.
“You have to take care of what you have,” he said.
In retirement, Rodda said he wants to spend more time with his family, more time at his cabin and get in some more rounds of golf.
Rodda’s last day will be Sept. 30. Berkowitz said he hasn’t yet decided on a replacement at both Anchorage Parks and Rec or in Chugiak-Eagle River.
“You never replace someone like that. You have to evolve into a different direction,” he said.
Berkowitz’s predecessor at City Hall agreed.
“Whoever replaces him has clown-shoe-sized shoes to fill,” Dan Sullivan said.
Though he’s been the public face of Anchorage Parks and Rec for more than a decade, he said it’s the people supporting him behind the scenes — folks like Eagle River-Chugiak Parks and Recreation manager Karen Richards and parks administrator Elizabeth Stanley — who are the true workhorses of the department.
“I’ve got some amazing people who have all worked to create the best we can out of what we’re given. They deserve a lot of the credit,” he said. “I was blessed with being born and raised here, privileged to have the jobs I’ve held and lucky to have the support from the administration, friends, coworkers and the boards. They all played a role.”
Asked to reflect on his legacy, Rodda became emotional as he talked about the many people who have helped him shape his hometown over the years.
“It’s not my legacy, it’s the people who do the work. I’ve been lucky,” he said, pausing to wipe a tear from his eye.