The City of Beebe has hired a new Director of Parks and Recreation.
Justin Thomas, 42, who is employed by the city of Jacksonville to maintain parks, got the job Monday at a special meeting of the Beebe City Council. It comes with a salary of $43,000, family health insurance, mileage and the possibility of using a city truck.
The vacancy was created when Lynn Hatcher announced he was planning to retire in May. He will work with Thomas when he settles into his new job, Mayor Mike Robertson said, but was not present at the meeting because he was hospitalized with COVID-19.
Robertson said of a dozen applications for the position, “We had one application that met the park director’s qualifications and duties. I’m just looking forward to what will hopefully be a season without all the COVID restrictions.” He also said that hopefully the community will overwhelmingly support the program.
Thomas said he was with the city of Greenbrier for 11 years and worked directly under its park manager before taking the job in Jacksonville five weeks ago.
“Basically every program that I’ve either run, or its assistant that helped it run,” Thomas said. “For the past six years, I’ve been over baseball and softball. At that time I was able to increase the teams. When I took over there were 26 teams; Last fall, last spring we were at 33, so despite all the Reiseball kids leaving, we were still able to build the program and keep it with a consistent number of kids.”
He said the baseball program “had $100,000 in real revenue last year. Softball around $50 [thousand.]He said this was achieved by keeping many teams on site and in the park.
“There’s always going to be kids’ teams and kids going off to travel ball, that’s going to happen,” Thomas said. “The most important thing is to keep as many as possible in the program.”
He said he also played peewee basketball for 11 years.
“Pretty much if it was doable in parks and recreation areas, I’ve probably seen it over the 11 years, the good and the bad, the ups and the downs,” Thomas said. “COVID has been a real challenge for many places. We could just move the spring season and then play in the middle of summer and then turn around and have our fall season.
“We’ve made a lot of adjustments to try to keep everyone safe. We realized very quickly that there was no need for a mask to be compulsory. The parents and grandparents would not wear them. They didn’t want to wear them, so we didn’t force it. We took out grandstands. Everyone loved it, they could bring their own beach chairs, distributed.”
During the first summer season last year at Greenbrier, Thomas said they switched fields so the whole ballpark wouldn’t fill up at once, and by the fall “we realized people just wanted to play. Parents wanted to visit their children, grandparents wanted to see their grandchildren play. They wanted out of the house. We accommodated them and never had a problem.”
Thomas said he’s already spoken to the Beebe High School baseball coach and they had a good hour-long conversation and agreed on what they want to do regarding the parents in Beebe.
Thomas said he also knew the high school softball coach and her father through travel softball. He said both of his daughters play travel softball and he coaches travel softball, “so I know a lot about running tournaments, a lot of fundraising.”
Councilor Matt Dugger asked Thomas if Parks and Recreation had a relationship with the school district while he was in Greenbrier, where the city could use the district’s facilities, and if so, if he was involved in initiating this.
“In basketball it is,” Thomas replied. “Baseball and softball, we don’t use school facilities. They have their own. We have our own. For basketball we use the junior high gym. Peewee Football uses their high school football field. Volleyball uses the school’s gymnasium. We weren’t over volleyball and soccer, but they used the school’s gymnasium for that.”
Dugger mentioned how important it is for the city to have a good relationship with the schools and college so that all institutions “work together”. Thomas agreed. “Absolutely. I think basically you just have to build relationships with the coaches first and foremost, you have to.”
Robertson told Dugger that he had spoken to the school district’s athletic director and that he and Thomas had a good working relationship. “In fact, he told me that if he had to leave for an extended period of time, vacation or illness, he would have full confidence in putting him in his position to run the programs.”
Councilor Derrek Goff mentioned Arkansas State University-Beebe and said he thinks part of Thomas’ job will be to use its facilities as well. Goff said ASU-Beebe has worked with the city in the past and he thinks Thomas should be the facility’s liaison.
Thomas said when he was 19 or 20, he coached a touring basketball team that would play at Beebe University.
Goff asked Thomas if he had short- or long-term plans for how he would treat leisure ball vs. travel ball.
Thomas said that when he took over the baseball program at Greenbrier, essentially one family had run the program for a decade. “It was a cash cow for them.” He said he changed things so that once a kid comes on a team, that team can stay together from 5 to 15.
“That stopped a lot of people from leaving,” Thomas said. “It has made our teams more competitive. With a more competitive league and our own league tournaments, kids and families couldn’t go and play Reiseball every weekend.
“They could stay there in Greenbrier, play their two games a week, play a tournament about once a month, get a feel for it and still get competitive baseball and know they don’t have to part ways every two years. They brought in a lot of people who were more on the fringes of the game of travel ball. When they figured out, ‘Hey, I can get on this team and stay with this team and move on,’ they came back.”
Councilor Shannon Woods asked Thomas if he’d been to the ball facilities and said “there’s obviously work to be done”. Thomas said his daughter played at a tournament in Beebe in late October and he drove over last Friday to check it all out. “It’s not as bad as you think it is,” he told Woods.
“Everything can be improved a little,” Woods said. He replied, “That’s everywhere unless you’re Conway or Benton or Cabot. You can improve something.”
Woods also asked Thomas about the pool as the job description goes beyond that as well. Thomas said he hasn’t done it yet, he’s focusing on softball and baseball, but “it’s nothing I can’t figure out.”
Goff said Thomas could obtain a commercial pool operator license by attending a two-day course. He said the city already has pool supplies for next year, too. Goff told Thomas he needed to hire a good pool manager and would be responsible for the administrative aspect of the concession stands at the park.
Thomas said he’s been in concessions for 12 years so he’s very experienced at it.
Goff also questioned Thomas about dealing with parents and social media.
“This is an animal that I’ve been involved with before there was social media,” Thomas said. “I’ve been involved with social media ever since it existed. … I’ve been dealing with the parents who are unhappy that little Johnny’s team was beaten to nothing at 17.
“Last spring we had rain. I had a mom go to our stadium and take photos of standing water on an infield and post on Facebook why her son couldn’t play that night. Well I just left it alone. It rained for three days. There are many people looking for an argument. They may not even believe what they are saying, they just want a reaction from you. You just have to be smart and smart and not put your foot in your mouth because once it’s out there you can’t get it back, you can’t take it back.”
Speaking about paying for the position, Thomas said he makes $43,800 in Jacksonville and his municipal health insurance is $150 a month for the family. Robertson said that having full family insurance would save Thomas about $600 a month in costs. Thomas said with the new job there would be lots of nights, lots of weekends, and lots of phone calls and things like that he wouldn’t have to do in Jacksonville.
He said his job in Jacksonville was a good job, but he was a program guy. “I want to be in the program, baseball and softball. I want to be part of that.”
Thomas said he gets off work at 3:30 p.m. and goes home and has no parents calling him at six or seven at night. “When you’ve been doing this for 11 years, it’s hard to turn that switch off.”
Woods said to Thomas, “I think you would be an asset to the city’s program.” Thomas said, “I know I can turn a program around. One thing I’m good at is flipping a program.”
Robertson told Thomas: “Lynn will be there to support you. He will be there to give you whatever information and support we have.”
Thomas, who still lives in Greenbrier and wanted to give Jacksonville two weeks notice, has scheduled a coach/parent meeting for January 25 at 6:30 pm in the ninth/tenth grade cafeteria in the district. For more information, call (501) 288-3729 or email him at email@example.com.