Leslie Eldridge balances optimism and realism as she tackles task of realizing department’s potential
By Morgan Rothborne, Ashland.news
From her position on a bench just outside Lithia Park on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, Leslie Eldridge looked at her new role as interim director of Ashland Parks & Recreation with frank facts and an unflinching eye.
“Morale is low — because of staffing issues, because of struggles with COVID — we’ve had issues with employee lawsuits we have just come through,” the former member of the Ashland Parks & Recreation Commission (APRC) said.
She described the work ahead of her with her eyes on the horizon but both feet on the ground. Parks are a beautiful asset for Ashland’s culture and increasingly vital to its tourism-based economy, she said. Parks are “the arteries and veins,” and “part of the weft or the needlework of the town.” It’s exciting to think about the potential, but stability comes first.
Key positions in APRC are open. To file one — the position of director left vacant when Michael Black left in July — Eldridge resigned from the commission. In her own office there is only one other employee. She laughed as she said the pace of the work reminded her of being 19 and working as a waitress in a busy Washington D.C restaurant.
She was still engaged in one of her first projects — a tour of every park and property owned by APRC with the staff who work there as her guides, creating an opportunity to hear directly from them what challenges they may be facing, their ideas and their needs.
“I’m letting them know I am available, that I care and that I want to reset. I want this to be a place where everyone wants to go to work and feels respected and valued,” she said.
Southern Oregon University, Parks and city departments like Human Resources and Public Works can all benefit from closer relationships, she said. It has to be multidisciplinary. It’s the only way for everyone to thrive after the pandemic and wildfires.
Security in parks is on her to-do list, too. The park patrol may be reinstated, she said, describing a previous program of unarmed cadets and uniformed junior officers patrolling parks to enforce rules or offer resources as needed. Commissioners are considering changing municipal code to close parks at night — such as from midnight to 5 a.m. — a change police officers have requested, she said.
Commissioners are also considering amending the rules to allow alcohol in controlled settings in Ashland parks. Organizers of music festivals and other events often view alcohol as a sticking point in choosing a venue, she said. Eldridge hopes to see parks become more vibrant and lively.
“You’d be hard pressed to find a more beautiful, extensive, parks system. This is my seventh year living here and there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think, ‘I’m the luckiest person alive to live here,’” she said.
It was love at first run. She and her family came to Ashland “on a lark,” and Eldridge decided to go for a run in Lithia Park.
“I thought, ‘Oh this is beautiful,’ and I started getting close to the reservoir and I realized, ‘It just keeps going.’ I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” she said.
As a commissioner, Eldridge was chair of the trails subcommittee. But she wasn’t limited by her own interests. While she admitted she has never golfed before, she was proud of the verdant look at Oak Knoll this year and game to continue the commissioner’s plan to find a contractor to revive the troubled course.
“My perspective is — and I think it’s very important for a parks director to have this perspective — everybody has the thing that they love that brings them joy in recreation,” she said. “I know how much trails and my bike means to me. In some ways, it’s like the most important thing — it’s my medicine, it’s what keeps us all going day-to-day. I would never want to take that away from anyone, whether it’s biking or golf or pickleball or soccer or ice skating and all these wonderful offerings that we have.”
She acknowledged that some residents of Ashland have questions about which recreation activities should be supported with how much public funds, and these are important conversations, too. Parks can also explore new ways to bring in revenue, she said.
Then there’s the persistent conflict of recreation as opposed to conservation of natural resources. She approached the issue much the same as she approached her previous job as a professor in the department of Environmental Science, Policy & Sustainability at SOU, where she encouraged her students to be pragmatic, multi-disciplinary and creative.
“It’s common for people to pit environmental stewardship against recreation. I think that’s a false dichotomy. I think recreation and trails done right create people that love the environment and want to dedicate their lives to it; we can have both,” she said.
SOU is holding her position while she takes on the role this year. When asked if she was the first female director of APRC, she wondered if it could be possible. She could say her gender and her name had led to one continuous comparison from her students, friends and colleagues.
“People keep saying, ‘Oh my god, Leslie you’re just like Leslie Knope!’ (the character portrayed by Amy Poehler in the TV show ‘Parks and Recreation’). And I’m like ‘No I’m not, I’m Ron Swanson (the department director in the show),’” she said with a grin.
As to a possible permanent switch from professor to director, she referred to her time in the position as “the world’s longest job interview.” She hoped within six months, both herself and the commissioners should know if she’s the woman for the job. Either way, she said, the only way to work is with a long-term mindset.
“You can’t do this job without thinking you’re going to stay forever, that’s the only effective and appropriate way to take on a job like this. … A short-term attitude is not good for an institution that’s meant to last generations,” she said.
Email Ashland.news reporter Morgan Rothborne at firstname.lastname@example.org.