Image courtesy of Gian via Adobe Stock
Through a decade as the CEO of one of the nation’s largest and most diverse park districts Mike Kelly had one North Star:
“My goal, and I think I was pretty successful at it, was trying to provide meaningful childhood experiences for kids across the city,” Kelly says 18 months after leaving the Chicago Park District (CPD), an organization he spent most of his life in. “I am a park and rec kid at heart.”
From his childhood on the south side of the city playing in park district leagues to a role as CPD in-house counsel and lobbyist, Kelly used deep institutional knowledge and his deeper bond with the city and its people to help CPD claim the industry’s highest honor in 2014, the National Recreation and Park Association Gold Medal.
During his tenure as CEO, Kelly wrangled a $500 million operating budget, 50 wards, 77 neighborhoods, over 600 parks, a zoo, the stadium that hosts Chicago Bears games and major concerts, 12 museums, 26 miles of lakefront, over 500 playgrounds, two conservatories, and 9,000 acres of parkland.
CPD was a finalist for the NRPA gold in 2019 and 2021 as well. That’s more impressive when you know that once a park district wins the gold medal it can’t reapply for five years.
Yet, Kelly chooses one metric as his highest achievement.
“Pre-COVID, we broke our programming registration numbers year over year,” Kelly says. “By the end we were registering 100,000 kids per quarter in our programs and we were probably serving another 100,000 per quarter indirectly through private leagues, AYSO soccer leagues, private little leagues, and church leagues. I’m probably as proud of that as anything we accomplished.”
In a December 9, 2014 event at the City Club of Chicago, then-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel boasted of the summer reading program started at park district camps and the coordinated reading efforts among the city’s libraries, cultural events centers, and the park district.
Emanuel, who appointed Kelly to the top CPD post in 2011, blended the discussion of the reading program for kids with the park district’s role as one of the city’s top employers of teens as two examples of the park district’s impact on city culture as well as advancement among its youth.
“It underscores the role the park district plays in the fabric of our city,” Emmanuel said at the event, “When you think about our neighborhoods and communities in Chicago, what an important role our neighborhood libraries and our parks play in the fabric of establishing and making sure a neighborhood and community have vibrancy and lifeblood.”
“Whether it’s a playground, a park, or the programming going on at our park district, Mike Kelly has led this park district to the 21st century.”
According to Kelly, a key part of this effort was implementing the CPD’s first strategic plan in 20 years. The plan had four pillars that could easily double as mission statements for the district: Children First, Best Deal in Town, Built to Last, and Extra Effort.
“It’s not that we don’t care about seniors, it’s not that we don’t care about adults, but we pivoted to putting children first,” Kelly says. “When you think about that, it impacts your day-to-day decision making.
“We’ll measure our success by the number of kids that come through our doors,” says Kelly. “We will never turn a child away for an inability to pay.”
To satisfy that pursuit, Kelly and his team focused on strong fiscal management rather than massive fee increases and tax hikes. The result was increases in non-tax revenue from events like Lollapalooza, Riot Fest, and many other festivals and concerts while property taxes rose just four times in fifteen years.
Parks such as Northerly Island, Maggie Daley Park, the 31st Street Harbor, the 606, the Lakefront Trail Separation project, Ellis Park, La Villita, the 312, the Gately Track and Field Center, the future Park District Headquarters in Brighton Park, and the under-construction Obama Presidential Center all became realities under Kelly.
His CPD administration also spearheaded the “Chicago Plays” program which saw the largest playground renovation program of its kind in Chicago and the United States.
“You have to be creative and you have to be relentless,” Kelly says of capital improvements. “To be successful in the park and rec business, and especially in the big cities, you have to be relentless in your passion to make a difference and you have to be relentless in looking for solutions and resources to solve those problems. You have to be.”
CPD invested in IT, training, and professional development and certifications, and today the agency boasts more certified park professionals than any other park agency in the country. Kelly says his creation of a department of workforce development was crucial.
The department has a director, and a cadre of employees that were mainly trainers, whose job is to train employees in best practices, to conduct the training sessions, and to help continuing education units through the NRPA.
CPD is accredited for standards of excellence in quality and efficiency by the National Commission for Accreditation of Park and Recreation Agencies as well as being recognized as a Distinguished Accredited Agency in the State of Illinois. CPD also began partnering with Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center to implement best practices to protect children.
Image courtesy of Mike Kelly
“That was all about re-investing in your people,” Kelly says of the workforce department genesis. Kelly knows his experience with one of the largest U.S. cities is mostly relatable to other large cities but also knows some tenets of parks and recreation management translate no matter the scale.
Kelly is proud that he had relationships with leaders of the 26 unions that CPD employees were in, that he visited every one of the city’s neighborhoods to dialogue in person about what the communities wanted, and how CPD and the community could collaborate to meet their needs.
“Know your communities, know your team,” says the self-proclaimed ‘park and rec’ kid. “Try to put each employee in the best position to succeed. Know your blind spots and fill those blind spots with quality people. Don’t be afraid to hire people smarter than you, that’s half the battle. Exercise common sense and communication at all times, with each other, with the field, and with the community.”