After 17 years heading up the El Paso County Parks Department, Tim Wolken is retiring on March 31.
Originally from the small town of Garnett, Kansas, Wolken earned a master's degree in public administration from Wichita State University, and then began a career administering public agencies in Kansas, Iowa, Missouri and then Rhode Island before landing in El Paso County. While many of his previous jobs encompassed a variety of duties, Wolken said parks were always his main focus. Arriving in 2004 as the newly hired head of El Paso County's Parks, Wolken was within days also handed the El Paso County Fairgrounds in Calhan, and with it, the El Paso County Fair. In 2009 he was named the director of the Public Works Department, which encompassed not only the county parks system, but also Transportation, Fleet Management and Environmental divisions. In 2012 he was named executive director of the Community Services Department, which oversees a wide range of divisions, including Parks.
Coming to El Paso County and its regional approach to parks was a new experience for Wolken. "I had not managed a regional park system before," he said. "I had worked in cities, and [that] was not dramatically different, but the regional system overall, with the large regional parks complimenting the small urban neighborhood parks, that was unusual."
The emphasis on nature centers and the environment was more focused here than in previous places he worked. Wolken said that learning about the different land managers and land management laws in the west, along with water law and dealing with endangered species was new - and fun - for him. He came in without any preconceived ideas and spent the first year learning the intricacies of El Paso County's parks system.
When asked if he had achieved everything he wanted to do during his tenure here, Wolken said, "We're always evolving, and there is always another project coming up. When I was trying to pick when to retire, I had to keep reminding myself that there is always another project, and maybe I should stay for this or stay for that. I think you're not doing your job if you're not always evolving. I don't think your job is ever done." He listed the ongoing process to build a nature center in the northern part of the county, developing new ways to manage the Paint Mines, and the continuing work in Jones Park and a county-wide parks master plan as projects that will continue after his departure.
Looking back on his time with El Paso County, Wolken said the economic downturn following the 2008 recession, and the subsequent slow recovery, were his greatest challenges. "When I came on board, we were relatively stable. We had 42 staff members, and a relatively reasonable budget for what were doing, then we dropped 25 percent of our staff, and lost a lot of our general fund support," said Wolken. "Then, slowly built back up again, and now we have stabilized relatively well. Just trying to run the park system in a reasonably decent fashion was the biggest challenge" during the recession. "Fires and floods certainly were significant challenges for certain parts of the parks system" he said. "That took years, and we're still working on projects that were involved in the Black Forest fire." Obviously the pandemic created another significant challenge. "Trying to keep staff safe, keep our citizens safe that are utilizing the park system, that's been an unforeseen challenge that no one expected," said Wolken. "I think overall I was proud that we kept the park system open. I think it was a critical asset for the community."
Wolken said his biggest success as parks director was, "being able to address the entire county with what I consider high-level facilities. So we haven't focused just on where the high-level population is. We've done the Paint Mines, and Kane Ranch, and the Pineries Open Space, and places like that that may not have the major population base. I'm proud that we've been able to address almost the entire county. [I'm happy] to say that you're going to probably live 15 minutes or so of a county park or facility or trail of some sort." He also counted the county's two nature centers and the programming they offer as a success, while crediting that success to the staff who work there. The Ute Pass regional trail and the Jones Park area, along with the relationships with nonprofits, the citizens and his staff were also his hallmarks of success.
Wolken said that during his time here, the idea of combining the Colorado Springs and county parks systems, or creating an independent parks special district was considered, but the take away was that it was too expensive or unwieldy. According to Wolken, the bigger question is "if we consolidate, does it improve services? Is bigger better?". Wolken pointed with pride that right now a county resident could pick up a phone and call him directly with a question or comment, something that may not be possible in a much larger organization.
Wolken plans to remain in Colorado Springs in retirement. "This is home for us. I've got my eye on a number of nonprofits, I'd like to help out with," he said. "We'll take a few months off and do a little bit of travelling, but after that want to kind of settle in for the next chapter, and certainly give back to the community."
"It's been a wonderful ride," he concluded.
The El Paso Board of County Commissioners will honor Wolken with a retirement proclamation at its March 30 meeting.