No Walk in the Park

But Former Westfield Mayor Rick Sullivan Is Enjoying His State Cabinet Post
Rick Sullivan

Former Westfield Mayor Rick Sullivan, now Commissioner of Recreation and Conservation for the Commonwealth, says the governor has made open space preservation a top priority.

Rick Sullivan, former mayor of Westfield and Massachusetts’ current Commissioner of Conserva-tion and Recreation, recently took the leap from the relatively small pond of Western Mass. to a sea of possibilities, as he sees it, in Boston.

True, he’s had to make plenty of adjustments — when an issue in his jurisdiction arises, he’s often consulting a map instead of taking a quick spin to a familiar street, and his daily commute from Western Mass. to the Hub can be daunting.

But Sullivan said living in one region and working in another also affords him the perspective he needs to serve many diverse communities, and that his past service in municipal leadership doesn’t seem so far away — in fact, he says he’s using the skills he learned during his six terms as mayor every day.

“Being a mayor was great training,” he said. “This job is bigger, and it impacts many more people, but the issues are the same. Knowing the mayors across the state has already been helpful, because we’ve talked about their communities before. I’ve also gotten the message from elected officials that they want DCR to work, so the reception has been great, and I don’t feel like a little fish.”

Nor should he. The name ‘Mass. Department of Conservation and Recreation’ doesn’t reveal the full breadth of services it provides. Formed in 2004 under the Romney administration, DCR blends the functions of the former Metropolitan District Commission with the former Department of Environmental Management.

But the model is more complex than that; four divisions — Urban Parks and Recreation, Water Supply Protection, Planning and Engineering, and State Parks and Recreation — operate under the DCR, employing 1,100 full-time staff and an additional 1,700 in seasonal staff (lifeguards, park rangers, and the like) in the summer months.

The agency oversees 450,000 acres of property across the Commonwealth, including 250 parks, forests, greenways, reservoirs, watersheds, and beaches, ranging from Mount Greylock in North Adams to Boston’s Esplanade, home of the Hatch Shell (the DCR Hatch Memorial Shell, to be exact) outdoor performance venue.

The department oversees programming, facilities management, and maintenance of all of these locations, and Sullivan said there’s a particular focus now on making the parks cleaner, safer, and more accessible for the Commonwealth as a whole.

This includes the monitoring and maintenance of 275 bridges and tunnels, including Boston’s Longfellow Bridge and the Storrow Drive tunnel. Thirty-one of these are major artery structures.

Sullivan, who took office in June, said he recognized the Patrick administration’s commitment to open-space preservation in Massachusetts early on, and after a few conversations, he was approached to consider the commissioner’s post. He said he suspected his history of civic leadership in Western Mass. played a part in the decision.

“There has been a real push by our government to make the executive team as inclusive as possible at all levels,” he said, “and to reach out to the various geographic regions of the state.

“I think part of what the governor recognized in me is the Western Mass. perspective,” he continued. “I can see the needs of Boston and the beltway, and they’re real. But everyone has projects, and they’re just as important as everyone else’s.”

His management style is a democratic one, and in the coming months Sullivan said he hopes to strengthen the department’s chain of command, thus increasing efficiency.

“It’s probably a mayor thing,” he said. “I’d like to see more people at the ground level keeping things neater, and less upper-management involved at that level. I believe that if you have professionals who are hired to do a job, we should of course make sure they’re doing it, but then let them do it. I’m pretty comfortable with that, and I think we’re going to be in good shape.”

And Sullivan added that, after many years of community planning, he has seen the importance of quality of life to Massachusetts residents.

“As a mayor I understood, as all mayors do, that at the end of the day, it’s a clear understanding of what the public wants — quality of life — that’s important,” he said. “It’s why people choose to live in the communities in which they live.”

Hook, Line, and Sinker

That’s not to say Sullivan doesn’t face his share of challenges in his new venture, though. Already, he’s seen the vast difference between serving a city and serving a state, even if it’s just through one sector of the government.

“You find out fast how big Massachusetts is,” he said. “It’s not a large state, but you have to stop and look at the huge number of facilities we operate, and how important each one is to its community. Every park offers a different experience, and that’s impressive.”

He recalls one of his first site visits — to Constitution Beach — as one of those moments of clarity.

“It’s one of first beaches in the urban ring, right at the end of a runway at Logan Airport,” he began. “You could literally throw a baseball, and it’ll almost hit the runway, and to watch the planes taxi around from the beach is a very different experience from Scusset Beach on the Cape, which is a quiet, ocean beach … and also different from a climb to the top of Skinner Mountain, where you can see the whole Valley.”

But Sullivan returns quickly to the positives of the job, and to the renewed commitment to conservation he sees in the Patrick administration.

“I think two big things that struck me when I came in, besides how big and diverse the state is, was the real dedication of staff, from those in the field to senior management,” he said. “They don’t think of work as a job, they think of it as a passion, and most people came to DCR because they truly believe in recreation and conservation. The commitment is huge.

“The other thing I’ve seen is the commitment from the governor and the legislature,” he added. “They truly believe in the mission of DCR, too, and also understand that it’s an organization that has been significantly underfunded for 18 years. We’ve taken some gigantic hits, and if we’re going to do a better job, we need more dollars — and that has started to happen.”

From the Mountains to the Oceans

Following a report on the state’s urban beaches, for instance, the Legislature approved funding for maintenance and upgrades that could be used at all beaches, including freshwater lakes and ponds and those in the state park system.

A ‘Parks Caucus’ has also been formed in the Legislature, dedicated to discussing issues that fall under DCR’s jurisdiction.

“If there’s a special issue that runs through several districts, many members will get together,” Sullivan explained. “There are more than 80 members involved now, and given that there are only 200 total, that’s huge — and it’s growing.”

He said that when he first addressed the caucus, 50 members were in attendance, and later, one member joked that to get that many legislators to come to any meeting is a small victory unto itself.

“It shows a commitment, and I’m extremely pleased,” he said.

The reason why could have much to do with DCR’s long reach and wide range of responsibilities. All communities have their issues, said Sullivan, and they range from keeping the public pool open and staffed to major infrastructure projects, such as the multi-million-dollar roadway construction and Summit House renovation now taking place on Mount Greylock, slated for completion at the close of next summer.

“Some projects are simple, but they’re all important to someone,” said Sullivan. “Holyoke would love to see its visitors center at Heritage State Park fully staffed, and Fall River wants the same thing.”

And it’s here, he said, that the support he’s seen from the Legislature and the governor’s office will be put to the test. With such a wide array of projects on tap and plenty of voices promoting each, Sullivan said a continued influx of funding is more important to DCR than ever.

“This is where the rubber meets the road,” he said. “There’s always ways to make a system work better through organization, but at the end of the day, we have to make investments in infrastructure.”

Building Bridges

Beyond funding concerns, there have been a few hot-button issues Sullivan has had to address; for one, while the core mission of the DCR is improvement of the state’s many parks, work involving bridges, dams, and tunnels has moved to the forefront recently as well. This is due in part to the issues Boston has already seen — the Storrow Drive tunnel collapse in 2006 probably the most notable — and increased awareness of such infrastructure concerns across the country in the wake of the Minnesota interstate bridge collapse, the levee breaks caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and increased anti-terrorism efforts.

“Breach of dams has risen in importance in terms of emergency management planning, as have safety inspections in places like the Quabbin reservoir, as well as other lakes and ponds,” said Sullivan. “And the Longfellow Bridge is 100 years old and need of a major overhaul.

“The hottest issue right now is probably the Storrow Drive tunnel,” he continued. “That’s a process we’re working through now, and no one disagrees that significant work needs to be done.”

Still, it’s a somewhat controversial topic, he said, as the tunnel runs along the Esplanade, which Sullivan described as “a very significant park in the DCR family.”

“In any construction job, there will be impacts,” he said, “So my goal has been to have an open public discussion in order to decide which impacts we can live with and which we can’t. The bottom line is we need that tunnel to be as safe as possible for motorists.”

Pooling Resources

Moving forward, Sullivan said there are a number of additional issues that are high on the governor’s to-do list, including new rail trail projects, improvements to the state parks system, and new programs in the area of land protection and conservation –– both of agricultural and forest land. He’s particularly excited about the latter, given that the bulk of the Commonwealth’s open forests are in the western part of the state.

“We’re going to identify 10 significant forest areas soon through the Forest Legacy Project, and many are in the west,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot happening to protect that rural character.”

In summation, Sullivan said he feels like he’s joined the administration at what could prove be one of its most dynamic periods. He has a clear set of priorities before him, and the systems in place to get down to business.

“The governor has made the direction really clear, and there are opportunities to improve and expand any number of things,” he said. “It’s an exciting time.”

And while the laps he must complete between Boston and Westfield are long each week, he assures us the water’s just fine.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]

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