David Fisher: Former and Future Superintendent talks parks, paternalism

The following article by Cristof Traudes was published in the April 5, 2010 issue of the Southwest Journal:


David Fisher was superintendent of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board from 1981–1998. His hallmarks include the creation of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and laying the groundwork for rehabilitating the Downtown riverfront.

On March 17, Park Board commissioners unanimously voted to hire Fisher back for four months to bridge the gap between outgoing Superintendent Jon Gurban and the system’s next leader. He’s expected to begin July 1.

The Southwest Journal caught up by phone with Fisher, who was on vacation hunting fossils in Utah.

Why did you decide to come back to Minneapolis?

Fisher: It seemed like they sounded like they needed some help. Plus, I just retired — again — from St. Louis.

What did you do there?

Fisher: I worked on putting together what I call sort of a Minneapolis system, a regional system. We interconnected 640-some miles of greenways, concentrating around the rivers — there are five rivers.

It was a pretty good challenge for about eight years. But in March, I’d thought, well, ‘I’ve had enough of that. I’ve probably had enough parks. I should probably just go away.’ But I didn’t. (Laughs)

Did anything in St. Louis add to your set of skills?

Fisher: Yeah — I think I honed the skills of developing citizen advisory committees and using citizen advisory committees to make decisions, or to make recommendations to the board to make decisions. We used those extensively. When we did the first master plan [in St. Louis], we had over 700 people involved in the entire region.

Why is citizen involvement so important?

Fisher: Ownership. Ownership. It’s totally an ownership issue.

You know, those who work in the field ought to know what’s good for the field. People who use the parks, enjoy the parks — they know what works.

Have you been keeping tabs on Minneapolis?

Fisher: I’ve always been very paternal about Minneapolis. I spent 30 years there, almost two decades as superintendent. So yes, I’ve kept tabs on it. I have lots of friends there. Obviously, they keep me up to speed on what’s going on.

I think that — how do I say this gently? — I think it needs to be gentrified again, where it is a compassionate part of what people think and do. Let the city get on with its real life and not worry about whether the staff is doing this or that.

Staff should be running in the background. It should be the background of all of the organization. It should never be the front ground.

As opposed to the commissioners?

Fisher: Yes. They’re the ones who the citizens elect. Staff can’t be the target.

How do you plan to keep staff out of the spotlight?

Fisher: I’m going to listen to the commissioners. I’m going to let them be the mouthpiece and set the policies.

I think they’ve had a good start.

What will be some of your goals as interim superintendent?

Fisher: I want to look at [organizational] structure. I know some restructuring has occurred. I don’t have any answers as to whether that’s good or bad, but I want to take a look at that. The thing I certainly have concentrated on doing in St. Louis was not developing a bureaucracy. We had an annual $10 million budget, and we managed that with seven people.

I think the public — what they really care about is that the parks are maintained. I’m not saying that that’s a problem in Minneapolis. I just want to be sure that that sort of fundamental hasn’t been lost in the city.

What do you think of the Park Board’s pending purchase of the riverfront lumberyard site?

Fisher: Scherer Bros. — yeah, that’s a big thing. I remember trying to buy that piece of property 20 years ago. That’s a big connection to the North Side. Whoever pulled that one together is just brilliant because that needed to happen.

Do you plan to get your hands dirty with the system’s budget?

Fisher: Yes. I wanted President [John] Erwin to understand I wouldn’t be a babysitter. I have a philosophy of running a public agency, and I’m going to make sure that that’s carried through.

In addition, putting together this national conference [the National Recreation and Parks Association’s 2010 Congress, which Minneapolis is hosting in October] is in fact a big deal. There’s five or six thousand people in town. This will be the third I put on. …

My goal is to hand off to a new superintendent the best-designed, best-managed park system in the country. Because it’s only with that kind of system that you’re going to get the kind of talent that you need to run it.

Cities and states all over the country now are having trouble with their park systems, and what they’re trying to do is close them down. What they don’t understand them to be is the necessity to quality of life that Minneapolis knows makes it such a treasure. Minneapolis really understands that.

That’s sort of the mystique of Minneapolis. But it’s also got to be known professionally as a well-managed, well-run parks system.