ALAMEDA -- In the nearly 10 months that Amy Wooldridge has headed up Alameda's Recreation and Park Department, she has heard from hundreds of engaged Alameda residents about what they want from her department.
They want clean parks. They want safe parks. They want park programming that is fun and enriching. And they have many, many ideas for what they want the city's new Beltline Park, officially known as the Jean Sweeney Open Space Preserve, to look like years from now when that park is developed.
"I talk to a lot of people," Wooldridge said, "and it seems like everyone I come in contact has some connection with the Alameda Recreation and Park Department. People here feel strongly about keeping their parks, keeping them maintained and keeping them vibrant."
Wooldridge, 40, was named new Recreation and Park director last May by City Manager John Russo. She previously spent 11 years working in Pinole, where she founded the Pinole Youth Center, which serves 500 young people a year, and the Pinole School of Performing Arts. She ushered in the Pinole Community Services Commission, Pinole Sports and Fitness Center, the Outdoor Cinema, the Halloween Carnival and Community Service Day events. She also oversaw the renovation of several playgrounds and tennis courts as the city's recreation director, a position she held since 2004.
But the main reason Russo hired her, he said, is because she managed to develop and oversee all these programs while increasing the once struggling department's cost recovery to 100 percent.
"We are operating the city of Alameda under tight fiscal management," Russo said. "We have a very fiscally prudent and tight administration, and we are willing to tell people difficult news of what can and cannot be done given modern economics. I hired (Wooldridge) due to her stellar reputation at her prior job. She was able to take a department that was under a great deal of financial pressure and turn it into a 100 percent cost recovery model."
Wooldridge, who has been on a soccer team since the 1990s and does CrossFit, lives in El Cerrito with her partner and their 3-year-old son. She said she would have liked to buy in Alameda but was priced out of the market when house hunting years ago. Before she took the job, she said she had for years played in Alameda with her son while visiting a friend who lives in town.
"Alameda has always had a strong sense of community," she said. "It's a unique environment within a large urban area and still has a small-town feel."
While at Pinole, Wooldridge managed mainly recreation programs, not parks, and said taking her position in Alameda is a welcome evolution on her career path.
"This is the third oldest recreation department in the state. I knew it would provide new learning experiences," she said. "It's a new learning experience and challenge, and I love challenges."
Wooldridge was born in Mountain View, grew up in the Bay Area and has lived in many cities around San Francisco but never in San Francisco. She studied psychology and women's studies at UC Davis, went into the nonprofit organization field after college and stayed there for about five years.
She's always been a leader. Wooldridge was a leader-in-training in middle school in Sunnyvale and was hired by the city of Mountain View as a recreation leader in high school and worked that position part-time through college. She learned administrative skills during her nonprofit career but grew wary of constantly having to raise funds to pay for her position. She said she applied for a job in the recreation department at the city of Pinole and they "took a chance" on her as she has no master's degree in recreation, which is usually required for her type of position in Pinole.
"I had access to and opportunities to learn all the aspects of recreation and administration there," she said. "I was fortunate to grow with the city and manage the programs, and I became a director after that."
Wooldridge started looking around for other work when Pinole started having financial difficulties. She was ready, she said, to expand her horizons. Too often, she said, management stays in one position and programs suffer as a result.
When a replacement was needed for former Recreation and Park Director Dale Lillard, who retired in 2011, Wooldridge applied. She now manages 22 full-time staff and a total of 250 class faculty and recreation leaders.
She said the biggest challenge of the job is budgetary. All departments are expected by residents to provide the same amount of programs but with fewer resources due to the economy, she said. In the first several months of her employment with Alameda, she has made several cost-cutting moves to save the city some money. It doesn't seem like a big deal that she bought a copier for the department but in the past department workers would have to use City Hall's copier and sit around all day waiting for jobs to finish. Now they can work in the office while fliers are being printed. Janitor services have been reduced by $15,000, and part-time staff schedules are being staggered to reduce staffing costs.
She said she is trying to avoid raising prices on recreation classes. For next year, fees have been raised minimally, she said. But she is making small changes here and there. She is restructuring athletic field rental rates to an hourly fee instead of a full season fee. Rates for reserving tables at parks for parties are being charged at various levels -- small, medium or large. There is an added fee for bringing jumpers to events because of the damage they do to grass and though before the department didn't rent its gathering facilities on holidays they do now for a 15 percent premium surcharge.
"Overall, residents won't see an increase in cost, but we're being more targeted in our fees so we can raise more money for programs," she said.
Another big challenge is figuring out a fix for the park and school system's pools. The city's two pools are the responsibility of the park department and school district. They are old, inefficient, and their plumbing is being held together "by duct tape and string," she said. Money from Measure WW can potentially be used for a fix, but that's still in the works.
Wooldridge is making a name for herself in the city for being the contact person for residents to give input into plans for the Sweeney Preserve. She has hosted weekend and night input meetings and recently led a tour of the land attended by 100 or more Alameda residents. All proposed projects for the park are currently unfunded, so Wooldridge and her staff will have to chase grants or private funding to build the park.
Regardless, Wooldridge said she's with Alameda for the "long haul" and she's having fun being director.
"Alameda is a special place," she said. "Alamedans are so invested in their community, and that sometimes creates challenges, but being able to work in an invested community is fun. I am enjoying it."