Parks and Rec Director Lori Rierson Retires After 34 Years of Service

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At the July City Counsel meeting, a resolution was passed honoring Lori Pierson's retirement.
At the July City Counsel meeting, a resolution was passed honoring Lori Rierson’s retirement.

After more than 30 years with the City of Williamsburg Parks and Recreation Department, Lori Rierson retired from her position as director Friday.

Rierson began working as a program director on July 27, 1981. Fresh out of college with an undergraduate degree in recreation and administration from Radford University, she saw an advertisement for an open position in the James City County Parks and Recreation Department and decided to apply.

“I’d never been to Williamsburg before I came out to interview,” Rierson said.

She had pursued a degree in recreation and administration because of her life-long love of sports and being outdoors, so upon graduating she was eager to go anywhere that might offer her an opportunity to put her degree to good use.

In her earliest days as a program director, Rierson was in charge of managing the swimming pool and a number of instructional classes, such as dance and aerobics.

“When I first started we had no recreation center, so we used the schools,” Reirson said, going on to recall how hectic it became over time to coordinate finding space for classes and programs in many different buildings throughout town.

Rierson was relieved and excited when in 1991 Parks and Recreation finally opened its own building, the Quarterpath Recreation Center. The original center included a double gymnasium and a suite of offices.

“It totally changed how we did things when we were housed in our own facility,” Rierson said. The department was able to offer a more regular schedule of classes and programs without having to depend on finding space in the increasingly crowded schools.

During this time, Rierson continued to manage the spaces and programs she originally oversaw, with a few important expansions.

In 1992 she proposed a walking program targeted toward area seniors who needed an accessible, comfortable place to get exercise. The walking program became something of a pet project for Rierson, who enjoyed seeing the camaraderie that blossomed among the regular participants.

In 2002, Rierson was promoted to deputy director and the recreation center building was expanded.

The expansion included the addition of several multipurpose rooms and classrooms, which attracted new types of users to Quarterpath. Rierson was in charge of renting out these new facilities for parties, meetings and other community gatherings.

This period of her career was marked by a desire to ensure the community saw the worth of the building and its expansion.

“Seeing the change from having no building to having this great facility was huge and it was such a great asset for the public,” Rierson said. She made it her goal as deputy director to ensure that the building met its full potential.

In 2009 Rierson was promoted to director upon the retirement of her predecessor Paul Hudson, becoming the second director of Parks and Recreation in the City of Williamsburg’s history.

“Director is not a position that opens up frequently because people who get into this career really like this career, so they want to stay,” Rierson said.

The beginning of her tenure as director also coincided with the economic crash of 2008, which hit Parks and Recreation hard.

“The budget cuts in 2008 through 2010 were one of the biggest challenges I faced in my career,” Rierson said.

She led the department in seeking out creative solutions to keep its programs intact, such as looking for sponsorships, offering more volunteer opportunities and developing partnerships in the community.

Reirson oversaw seven full-time employees and numerous part-time employees, a relationship that was “like a family.”

“The greatest thing about my job is the people,” she said.

The sense of friendship among the staff made it easy for everyone to feel comfortable covering for one another as needed. Though she was busy with the responsibilities of the department director, which include taking care of money, leading staff meetings and serving on numerous committees, Rierson recalls days when she filled in working the front desk and even cleaning the building.

In 2011, she faced another new challenge in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene. Since its creation, the Quarterpath Recreation Center had been a designated community shelter, but Irene was the first occasion that it had to be used in that manner.

“I spent 52 straight hours here for Irene,” Rierson said. “We were lucky that it was a small crowd, so it was a good experience to get the feel of how a shelter should work.”

The hurricane wasnot the only new experience for the department during Rierson’s years as director. She saw an increasing need to expand the types of programs that Parks and Recreation had to offer to meet the changing interests of kids born in the 21st century.

“You’re always going to have kids who want to play basketball, for example, but for other things I felt like we needed to come up with something new,” Rierson said.

One such offering was an initiative at Waller Mill Park to attract kids who, having grown up with cell phones and portable gaming systems constantly at hand, crave being technologically plugged in. Visitors to the park can use a handheld GPS to go on a geocaching adventure that allows them to hunt for objects and landmarks by plugging in coordinates.

Waller Mill is also the site of several other new projects, including a dog park and a Frisbee golf course. Though Rierson describes the decision to begin charging a $2 fee to enter the park as one of the toughest of her career, she also names the recovery of Waller Mill after the economic downturn as one of her proudest accomplishments.

With these accomplishments in the rearview and new projects on the horizon for the department, Rierson decided that, after 34 years, she was ready to move on to the next chapter in her life, which will include lots of bike rides, relaxation and, most importantly, more time with her new grandchild.

“It’s a good time to slow down a little bit,” Rierson said of her decision.

She anticipates that in the coming years, Parks and Recreation will continue to expand many initiatives begun during her time with the department, including providing more programs for senior citizens and emphasizing good nutrition in addition to exercise for young people.

“I feel good about where I’m leaving these projects, and most of all I know they are in capable hands,” Rierson said.

When asked about what her fondest memory of the time she spent with Williamsburg Parks and Recreation is, Rierson described a surprisingly ordinary scene, but one that was nonetheless visibly moving to her.

“A few years ago I had a really lousy day, I don’t even remember about what,” she said. “On my way home I drove by Kiwanis park, and there were people there playing ball and having picnics. When I saw that, I just forgot everything that had upset me and it made my whole day. Those people enjoying the park –that’s what this is all about.”