Off to new landes: BI Parks director retires after 20 years

When Terry Lande was 10-years-old, he knew we wanted to be a parks director.

That wish came true, in abundance. The Bainbridge Island Metro Parks & Recreation District saw tremendous growth during his 20 years in the position. He retired last month and is already making the most of it. He, his wife and four of his kids are enjoying groups like the Foo Fighters, Bonnie Raitt and Trombone Shorty at the New Orleans Jazz Festival.

“That’s the dream for me — spending time with my kids, bringing the family together and just enjoying life,” he said. “When I get back, I hope to get my garden weeded […] and sail and camp and trailer and travel and hang out. And stay involved one way or another on the island.”

His career on BI kick-started a new era for parks. Highlights include stabilizing the district’s budget with property tax funds; improving employee retention and managerial culture; acquiring Fay Bainbridge and Fort Ward parks from the state; obtaining the Bainbridge Island Recreation Center; increasing parks programming; and offering free public activities like concerts in the park.

Aspiring to be a parks director is not the average dream of a sixth-grader, Lande admitted, but he was inspired by watching his father build a youth center in northern Idaho. “My dream was to run my dad’s building,” Lande said.

Lande started working after school at the youth center in eighth grade, and never looked back. In summertime, he ran programs and youth activities. When he went to college, Lande got a degree in parks management from the University of Idaho and got a job in Eugene, OR at a kids’ sports nonprofit after graduation.

It was six years, but it felt like a lifetime of experience, Lande said, adding he got yelled at a lot. “It was kids’ sports, and if your umpire wasn’t good last night, and you run into me, you want to tell me how horrible the umpire was,” he said. “I learned a lot about dealing with people and working hard — those were eighty-hour weeks.”

From there, he went into parks management in Springfield, OR, the largest district in that state, and worked his way up the ladder. 20 years into working there, Lande was parks director, and ready for a new challenge.

Lande applied for the BI role in 2003. Parks board member Ken DeWitt recalled that at his job interview, Lande was “brutally honest” — sharing ideas for how the parks could be improved — which spoke to his leadership potential. DeWitt wanted to hire him on the spot.

After receiving an offer from BI, Lande did his research to come up with a plan of action.

“I thought it would be a good two-year sprint, and then we’d be able to calm down and kind of cruise. Turns out it was a twenty-one-year marathon sprint,” he said. “There were so many things to do, so much activity, and we had so much support […] from great board members and great staff.”

His leadership changed the way the district functions, internally and as a public amenity, and his philosophy laid the groundwork at the agency for years to come.

“When we hired Terry, we were poised for growth, but we needed direction,” DeWitt said. “He’s proven to be a person that is very trustworthy and not afraid to take on hard issues. His judgments have always been sound.”

With Lande at the helm, BI parks made history as the second such department in the state (right after Tacoma) to convert from a “junior parks district” that relied on funding from biennial public levies to a “metro parks district,” that relied on local property taxes.

The designation ensured the department’s financial stability and opened the door for dozens of new programs and the adoption of several new parks.

“It’s allowed us to get some stability not only on funding, but on higher-quality employees that know that they don’t have to worry about their paycheck and job disappearing in a year and a half to two years,” DeWitt said.

The role did not come without challenges. Before voters chose to switch BI Parks to a metro district, the agency was operating on a shoestring budget. Once funding came in post-transition, a culture shift had to follow to push the parks forward, Lande said.

That’s how the agency acquired Fay Bainbridge and Fort Ward parks. When Washington State Parks hit a financial slump in 2011, it sought to cut costs by selling off a few of its properties. Lande presented the option to the board, which initially balked out of budget concerns — but Lande stood fast.

“They weren’t used to having money and weren’t sure how to do it. But I came from generating funds,” he said. “We showed how we could expand the campground, increase the campground fees, that sort of thing. That ended up being a great thing.”

The internal culture shake-up didn’t stop at investment strategy. DeWitt said Lande encouraged management to invest time and energy into their teams, which improved staff retention. Lande also emphasized public outreach — including goodwill events like the haunted hayride, summer concert series and more.

The upbeat, social programming is a reflection of Lande’s people skills, parks commissioner Tom Goodlin said.

“Here’s a person who loves music, and he wanted to create events that could bring the public together,” Goodlin said. “He was clear that it was important for the park district to hold those events free of charge so that it was a way of celebrating with the island and saying thanks to the island residents for all the support that they provide.”

It was the people of Bainbridge that surprised Lande the most when he took the position. The volunteerism and support for the park district were phenomenal, he said — there’s “more involvement on Bainbridge than anywhere else.”

But it wasn’t always smooth sailing. Transitions within the agency were a tough sell.

Prior to Lande taking office, residents voted down its two-year levy. Lande suggested the new metro district using a property tax. But voters had to vote on an emergency “bridge” levy to sustain parks that year, and also switch to the property tax model. It worked as both measures passed.

The public was split again when Lande and the board wanted to buy the Bainbridge Island Recreation Center. But that has turned out to be a success with more people using the facility all the time and programs expanding exponentially.

Goodlin and DeWitt agreed that Lande’s legacy is reflected in the people-focused programming.

“I think he left us in a great position to provide recreational activities and learning opportunities to the public, and we just want to continue to enhance that,” Goodlin said. “The more we can get people involved, the more we can encourage healthy living and relationships with the outdoors.”