For the first time in nearly a year, Gig Harbor Peninsula’s park district has a permanent executive director. Doug Nelson, a native of Bainbridge Island and former recreation manager for the City of Federal Way, beat out three other parks directors vying for the job and took his place at the helm of PenMet Parks in December.
Prior to Nelson’s hiring, consultant Glenn Akramoff had been acting director. The district’s last permanent director, Richard Fink II, left in March 2019 after holding the position for less than a year.
The leadership transition comes at a time of “unprecedented growth” for the district, Maryellen “Missy” Hill, president of PenMet Parks Board of Directors told The News Tribune in November. PenMet Parks is currently working to create a 190,000-square-foot community recreation center on the former Performance Golf Center property on 14th Avenue NW. The land has been purchased and plans are now underway to create indoor recreation opportunities, including a soccer field, flag football field, pickleball and tennis courts, a walking track and an indoor playground.
Nelson says his prior 13 years of experience working in Federal Way’s community center will be helpful as this project moves forward. He began as a center supervisor in 2006 and was promoted to manager in 2014. Both positions, he says, allowed him to gain knowledge on the multiple aspects of running the center, from the back-end responsibilities of budgeting, staffing, programming and maintenance to the more public aspects such as customer service, partnering and fundraising. Most notably, Nelson played a key role in developing the financial responsibility of the facility, which initially struggled to meet initial projections.
“It wasn’t until after we opened that we truly discovered what type of business we needed to operate,” he said. “We updated the business plan and focused our efforts on our best practices—what we were really the best at—and started to turn things around.”
The Federal Way Community Center now has more than 4,500 members and sees approximately 1,500 people a day, John Hutton, Federal Way’s parks director, told the Federal Way Mirror.
In addition to the planning of Gig Harbor’s community recreation center—$3.1 million of the PenMet Parks’ 2020 budget was allocated to designing the center, The News Tribune reports—the organization is also planning upgrades and improvement projects at Sehmel Homestead Park, Hales Passage Community Center, and the organization’s trail system. Nelson says the recreation program offerings will also continue to grow and that he wants to explore public outreach opportunities.
A self-professed “fitness buff,” Nelson personally hopes to have face-to-face involvement with the community through teaching classes. While at Federal Way, he taught everything from spinning classes to functional fitness and weightlifting. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but it turned out to be a really important part of my manager role,” he told the Federal Way Mirror in December about his time as an instructor. “It helped me connect with customers on a level that made them feel real comfortable talking with me, and we built a strong level of respect for one another versus if I was just the guy in the office.”
Looking to the future at PenMet, Nelson said he “can’t wait to find the right fit” for some type of instruction. “I am currently using some of my limited free time to get out and adventure through the trails and other parks, and I’d like to set up something where I meet PenMet residents at a local trail and we walk or ride together and have casual conversations about PenMet Parks. I think it sounds like a really cool idea—I hope the community will as well.”
It was this passion for activity that first drew Nelson to the world of parks and recreation and is something he has carried with him through nearly 30 years of work in the field. Growing up on Bainbridge Island, Nelson spent his childhood hiking, camping and going on biking expeditions with his family. Later, as a business student at Pacific Lutheran University (PLU), he pursued trail distance running, triathlons, rowing and bicycle racing.
“When I was nearing graduation from PLU, I decided to earn a minor in exercise science due to my love of athletics, collegiate rowing and group exercise instruction,” he says. That led me to a few internships that were corporate fitness related. It was then I decided that fitness and wellness suited me well, and I began looking for these types of job opportunities.”
Nelson worked for the YMCA of Tacoma, as a rowing coach at PLU, as a recreation and fitness coordinator at Metro Parks Tacoma, and then at the City of Federal Way. He says the “extreme passion” in the PenMet Parks community—patrons, staff and residents—is how he knew PenMet was his next step.
“The resounding theme that I came away with was how much the PenMet Parks meant to all, how impressed people were, and visions of a promising future as well. I knew I needed to be a part of that,” he says. “There is so much to look forward to.”