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Front Page - Friday, July 27, 2018

Bergdoll travels twisting path to Parks post

Photograph by David Laprad James Bergdoll, director of parks maintenance for the Department of Public Works in Chattanooga - David Laprad | Hamilton County Herald

On any given weekend, Chattanooga’s many playgrounds, parks and trails are filled with people who are taking advantage of one of the city’s best-loved amenities – its green spaces.

From Coolidge Park to the Chickamauga Greenway, and from Southside Community Park to the Chattanooga Riverwalk, they are some of the finest jewels in Chattanooga’s crown.

But the man responsible for making sure these places look their best will more likely be found in a much smaller green space - the garden behind his home.

James Bergdoll, director of parks maintenance for the Department of Public Works in Chattanooga, started the tiny vegetable patch this spring so he could teach his two young daughters about growing food.

Its fertile rows and the backyard that surrounds them are also where he likes to spend his down time.

On Monday morning, though, Bergdoll is back in his office, orchestrating dozens of workers as they put a layer of polish on over local 100 parks and other public spaces, including 35 miles of paths and trails.

Like the grass his crew keeps trimmed, the local park system is always growing.

The $1 million Southside Community Park opened last year with a pavilion, restrooms, a space for picnics, a walking track and a wide-open field.

East Lake Park, one of Chattanooga’s oldest recreational areas, is scheduled for renovation later this year. Bergdoll says the water quality in the duck pond is being worked on and a new playground will be installed.

In addition, an outdoor classroom will be built for nearby East Lake Elementary School to use.

These projects are exciting for the city and its residents. “Studies show that parks and green spaces are important to people,” Bergdoll says. “This community, with its love of the outdoors, needs these kinds of spaces.”

But they also create a number of challenges for Bergdoll, whose job often involves balancing the growing needs of Chattanooga’s parks with the limited resources available for tending to them.

“There are places that need a facelift,” he admits. “Every year, when the city goes to budget, we put them on the list, but we’re not always the ones who decide what takes priority. We have to balance what this department wants with what other people think is important.”

Bergdoll would like to see some of the city’s small neighborhood parks spruced up or playgrounds replaced, but as the parks maintenance man, he has to base his decisions regarding refurbishments and replacements on maintenance needs. If something is a constant maintenance concern or safety issue, then it goes to the top of Bergdoll’s to-do list.

There’s just one problem: this list keeps getting longer. So, Bergdoll spends his days working to create an equilibrium between needs and resources.

“I would love to improve some of the older facilities, but there are always politics,” he acknowledges.

Politics are inescapable, even in Indiana, where Bergdoll grew up earning badges in Boy Scouts and camping as much as possible. When he became old enough to push a lawn mower, he began taking care of his neighbor’s lawns for pocket money.

Growing up in a state dominated by agriculture and manufacturing had little effect on Bergdoll, though, who initially studied forestry at Purdue University.

It was a false start for the young Hoosier, who quit school and worked in a factory for a few months before landing a job with the moving crew at Hanover College, a small Division III athletic school.

It was an appointment with destiny. When Bergdoll wasn’t shuttling desks from one building to another, he helped the grounds crew maintain the athletic fields. He liked the work.

“I joined the grounds staff full time even though I didn’t know anything about proper athletic field care,” Bergdoll says.

He would learn, though. Inspired by his work at Hanover, Bergdoll returned to Purdue and enrolled in the school’s turf grass management program, where he studied the science behind maintaining a golf course, or a football or baseball field.

The subject captured his interest like nothing else had and turned him into something of a turf grass nerd.

“There’s a science to getting the dirt just right,” Bergdoll explains. “You want to create a good hop that’s playable but not dangerous. So, before a game, you hose down the infield to put moisture in the dirt. The goal is to keep it hard enough to play on and wet enough to keep the dust down.

“You don’t want a muddy mess. The end product should be cleat-in and cleat-out. It’s like when you stick a toothpick into a cake when you’re baking, and if nothing comes out, you know it’s ready. So, the cleat goes in and you don’t want it to clump out.”

There’s a lot of soil analysis involved, too, Bergdoll says. “You have to have the right amount of sand and clay and you have to keep your silt content down.”

Despite all the science involved, Bergdoll insists good turf management is an art as well. “You maintain it based on how it feels,” he adds. “Baseball pros like their area to be a certain way – they might ask for more or less water. Groundskeepers try to be fair, though, and not give the home team an advantage.”

Bergdoll has worked on several types of turf. While at Purdue, he landed a job working on the school’s golf course. Even though he’s not a golfer, he enjoys being outside.

He also maintained the home field for the Indianapolis Indians, a minor league baseball team, for a season. “The groundskeeper had a huge influence on me. He taught me how to maintain an infield,” Bergdoll recalls.

As a man hoping to someday start a family, Bergdoll was always aiming higher in his career. His aspirations eventually took him to Elizabethtown, Kentucky, where he was a part of the team that built the Elizabethtown Sports Park, a sprawling complex with 12 ball diamonds, synthetic turf football fields and natural turf fields for soccer or lacrosse, from the ground up.

Bergdoll oversaw the construction of the complex for the city, then segued into helping to manage the park after it opened. He was perpetually the No. 2 man, though, so he set his sights even higher.

“In the parks world, the higher-level jobs are held by people who have master’s degrees,” Bergdoll says. “So, I did an online program through Western Kentucky.”

Bergdoll’s master’s degree is in recreation and sports administration. During this time, he also became certified as a sports field manager through the Sports Turf Managers Association. But even with these new credentials, something was off.

It came down to location. For all of its beauty and charm, Elizabethtown did not feel like home to Bergdoll and his wife. So, he began looking elsewhere for work.

“We weren’t happy there, but we weren’t going back to Indiana,” Bergdoll says. “So, my wife and I began looking for a permanent home.”

They found it in 2015 when Bergdoll spotted the director of parks maintenance position online. With local ball fields like Warner Park Softball Complex and the Summit of Softball Complex operating under the Department of Youth and Family Development, Bergdoll knew the job would be different from what he’d done in the past.

While a desk is an odd place for a person of Bergdoll’s knowledge and experience to be, it’s where his career has brought him. Thankfully, the work is satisfying.

“I felt like I could make a bigger impact somewhere else,” he clarifies. “There are 175,000 residents and always a lot of visitors in Chattanooga, and those are the lives I touch.

“This is where people come to chill out and get away from their desks, and my crew and I help to make that a good experience.”

Still, there are days when Bergdoll misses the turf. “I’ll get on Twitter and see photos of my colleagues and their perfect sports fields, and it’s like, man.”

To help fill the gap, Bergdoll maintains his membership in the STMA, a small organization that promotes professionalism in sports turf management.

“We’re not just the guys who mow the grass. We’re educated; we’re passionate about what we do,” he says. “We give everything we have to make sure the players are safe and the field looks nice and plays well.”

Bergdoll serves the STMA as a member of its Parks and Recreation Board.

Although Bergdoll misses the fulfillment that comes with creating a well-manicured infield, his job as director of parks maintenance in Chattanooga has its rewards, too, not the least of which is living in a region he and his family have come to love.

“We came to Chattanooga to be in a better place,” he says. “Having been here three years, I can say we made the right choice. This is a great place to live, work and raise a family.”

It’s also a wonderful place to go to a park – even for a pair of homebodies like Bergdoll and his wife, Amber. Their girls, who are two and five years old, like exploring beyond the confines of the family homestead, especially when it involves a ride on the carousel at Coolidge Park.

Bergdoll, who just turned 40, enjoys getting away as well. His ride of choice is his older Harley Davidson.

 “That’s dad time, and it’s rare. I love spending time with my kids, but sometimes, I have to get away,” he adds with a smile.

No matter how far Bergdoll bikes, he always comes home to his family and his parks. He says he can’t image life without the former, or Chattanooga without the latter.

“The town in which I grew up didn’t have a lot of parks, so we’d play on the slides and swings at the schools,” he says. “Having that opportunity enriches your family and your own well being.”