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Rock Hill parks dept. head wins career award

Ed Thompson has led the city of Rock Hill's Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department to numerous awards and overseen nationally acclaimed events since he took over in 1983.

Most recently, Thompson was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the S.C. Recreation and Parks Association, an award acknowledging a "true leader and pioneer in the field of recreation and leisure services for at least 20 years," according to a parks association news release.

The winner must have given outstanding service, filled a leadership role, been active in promoting recreation through speeches, education and other events and be of good character.

Thompson, a native of Stanley, N.C., talked to The Herald recently about his work, Cherry Park's success, adding 'tourism' to the department's name and how important sports tourism is for the city.

Q: You've been in the field of recreation and leisure services for more than 20 years. What inspired you to choose that as a career path?

A: Probably the fact that both my parents came from an education background. They were teachers and early influences, my dad especially, teaching and coaching in high school. He was the only coach for three sports - football, baseball and basketball - and he started the track program. In the summertime, he ran a local recreation program. ... I would help with the younger players. I think that probably got my interest in what I call the "people business" and "public service."

Thompson also played on sports teams, which he said instilled teamwork in him.

Q: Where did you go to school and what degree did you get?

A: Western Carolina University for a bachelor of arts in education in 1970 and a master of arts in education in 1971. I had a graduate assistanceship working with intramurals. They were using the graduate students to do some of the classes in health and physical education departments. That was fun, and I enjoyed the teaching part of it. Then I got hired to come to Rock Hill.

Q: Tell us a little about your career path.

A: I came to Rock Hill out of graduate school to teach at Northwestern High School in 1971 when it opened. I was a trainer and coached. I had an interest in athletic injuries and first aid and that type of thing. It was a natural fit with working with the health and wellness part. I taught history and political science.

In the summer, I taught prevention and treatment of athletic injuries. It was a classroom-type of course with some lab work, and we ended up having a lot of students who were going into nursing and pre-med, and it was a fun course.

I was assistant coach to football, wrestling and baseball. When we actually started, they did not have girls' basketball. I had been there about four years, and I volunteered to help start the girls' basketball team. We ended up having some very successful years while I was there.

Then I spent four years as director of health and physical activities at the YMCA. I did the youth sports. I would counsel people on weight loss and healthy lifestyle and exercise prescriptions.

Both the school district job and the YMCA job were excellent training and preparation for the city. I applied for the director's position from the start.

Q: You've been with the city of Rock Hill since 1983 and added 'tourism' to the department's name. What reasoning went behind this decision?

A: When I started working with the city, it was the same years that I was the chairman of the Come-See-Me festival. I got involved with the state festival association because of that. Going to some workshops where I would hear some other parks and recreation directors who were also involved with festivals in their community and how their department was connected to the festivals like we were here, but how it was connected to tourism, made a whole lot of sense to me.

We were networking with the state department of parks, recreation and tourism, and this was about the time there were plans for Cherry Park. There were high expectations for Cherry Park about bringing in visitors from out of town to play in the tournaments. The textile mills were starting to close in Rock Hill and there was a lot of unemployment, so the city leaders thought that Cherry Park could help with some economic development, not only for Cherry Road but for the community.

The first year, we were excited and had a $1.2 million economic impact. That has grown, of course. Cherry was generating economic impact, and the business community started recognizing that parks and recreation could have some impact with business benefits with housing, transportation, shopping and miscellaneous. It was a natural fit for the way we were trying to use the park and tournaments as an economic development tool, and the city adopted it as a strategy.

Q: What are some things you set out to do as department director?

A: I wanted to be supportive of our staff and learn about our staff and facilities and programs and encourage, as I learned about certification, our staff to be certified and develop a very diversified quality programs. We like to say we try to serve the public from the cradle to the grave. I learned a great deal my first year.

Q: During your time with the city, what are some things you've helped accomplish that you're most proud of?

A: I'm proud of what I call community spirit and the support we've got from council and management and the multiple commissions. We've got a lot of citizens advisory committees for every sport and location. I'm proud of all of our facilities and the quality growth that we've had.

I'm proud of the citizens of Rock Hill that will roll up their sleeves and get things done. Those two facilities (Hargett Park and Glencairn Garden) are examples of the community spirit. A lot of communities don't have the network of volunteers that we do.

We're the first in the state to add tourism to our name.

Q: Rock Hill has gained national attention for its recreation facilities, such as softball tournaments at Cherry Park and soccer tournaments at Manchester Meadows, and you are credited with helping found sports tourism in the state. How important is sports tourism for a city?

A: It's important that we did this as a strategy for economic development. It did bring credibility to the department through the business and community. It does help generate a lot of hospitality tax. One of the greatest benefits is that a lot of the facilities we have were built by hospitality tax funds, but the local community benefits not only during the week especially, but during the weekend.

We had no idea when Cherry Park was being planned how popular the trails would be. We had to add a second trail after the first one was built. While construction was going on, people started using the trail out there.

The sports tourism helps provide and improve some facilities if they're tourism-related, but the local benefit from it also by having a nice play to play as well as picnic, playgrounds and the trails.

Q: What are some things you'd like to do in the future with the department?

A: I'd like to expand our national reputation and support the city's strategic plan. We're in the process of updating our master plan, so that involves keeping community support and sustaining and maintaining our existing facilities. At the same time, we're doing that, we're doing the step-by-step of opening the Rock Hill Outdoor Center. Hopefully, it will fit in to adding more economic impact to what we have going on. It's also something the local people can enjoy and then continue to serve the public with a diverse program.

I'd like to keep building on the things that have been successful and keep the community support going. I have full faith that the public is going to keep volunteering and keep rolling up their sleeves to help leisure services be important to their families and to their communities.

Q: How did you feel when you won this award? Did you have any idea you would win it?

A: I was totally surprised, emotionally shocked and humbled by the honor. It was very special to share the moment with my wife and three sons. Any recognition to me is a direct reflection on the people I have worked with, including supportive management and council members, outstanding staff and dedicated citizen volunteers. I love Rock Hill and feel very fortunate to have served the community all these years.

Q: Do you have a message for people who are interested in making parks, recreation and tourism their career?

A: They have to have a deep desire to serve the public. They have to love people. It's a lot of time away from family and second shift and weekend work, but there's a lot of gratification. ...You have to have a lot of energy. It's never the same thing every day.