“Recreation is better today because we have a plan for tomorrow,” is a strong belief of Steve Ivey, the soon-to-retire director of Huntsville Parks & Recreation.
That philosophy was reflected in one of the most controversial decisions of Ivey’s 45-year career – closing the Becky Peirce Municipal Golf
Course and converting it to a multipurpose facility. It would include sand volleyball, disc golf, a walking trail, a four-mile mountain bike trail and a championship-class cross country course.
When the project was announced, it drew a maelstrom of protests from golfers who decried the lack of public courses in the Rocket City. Ivey, however, believed the plan made more sense than keeping the golf course open.
“It was a tired golf course, never revived,” he said. “You have 400 acres in the center of the City … they looked at me to make a decision.”
Despite the controversy, Ivey didn’t back down.
“Once he gets on something, he stays on it,” said Ralph Stone, who recently retired as director of the Huntsville Sports Commission. “He’s got a good follow-up to see things through.
“He stands up for what he believes in and won’t back down.”
Stone and Ivey’s relationship goes back nearly 40 years when Stone led Huntsville Parks & Recreation and Ivey was an assistant.
“I worked with Steve when it was COHPAR (City of Huntsville Parks & Recreation) in the ‘80s,” Stone said. “Our relationship was not a boss-employee; it was more like co-workers.”
Stone said he and Ivey worked on master plans for rec programs and Ivey “always dreamed of having outstanding facilities.”
“We’ve been able to put money with the plans,” he said. “We had a big commitment from the City, which led to the outstanding facilities.”
For the last 7 ½ years, John Hamilton, the City’s administrator, has advocated for getting projects financed.
In fact, in 2017, Hamilton received the Lay Award, a statewide recognition of people who champion Parks & Recreation initiatives and programs in Alabama communities.
Ivey’s dedication to the City’s program is understandable since he is a Huntsville native and a 1975 graduate of Butler High School.
His resumé includes serving as lifeguard in 1975 before being promoted to head lifeguard, assistant manager and manager of the Natatorium; superintendent of swimming, golf and softball; manager of the Parks & Recreation department; and, finally, director of Parks & Recreation.
“Talk about a public servant who dedicated his entire adult life to the City,” Hamilton said. “He’s passionate about his community and the kids.”
Talk about a public servant who dedicated his entire adult life to the City,” Hamilton said. “He’s passionate about his community and the kids.”
Hamilton and Ivey worked together and regularly discussed the City’s recreational wants and needs.
“I personally enjoyed (Ivey’s) input,” Hamilton said. “I was able to rely on Steve … it was incredibly valuable.”
Moving and moving up
The City’s Parks & Rec offices also moved almost as many times as Ivey has changed job titles.
“We started at Brahan Spring Park then to Earl Street, then City Hall to Drake Avenue and now, here on 9th Street,” Ivey said.
Some of the projects over Ivey’s career included:
- A $1.2 million renovation of the Showers Recreation Center in 2016;
- A $22 million renovation turning the Brahan Spring Park Natatorium into the Huntsville Aquatics Center;
- Huntsville’s first free public archery facility;
- Extended greenways
- A partnership with the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library to renovate the North Huntsville Library and Berachah Complex to include outdoor pickleball courts, a lighted walking path, an adult outdoor fitness playground, a kid’s playground and improved landscaping; and
- A 58-acre nature preserve and upgrading and expanding of the Merrimack Sports Complex.
Ivey said his most memorable project was the renovation of the Natatorium.
“My background with the City began in swimming and I was at the old Aquatic Center (on Monroe Street), so that was special,” he said.
Thinking outside the box
The renovation was also part of the Brahan Spring Park “success story,” he said.
“It was seedy years ago, but now it’s turned around,” he said.
Brahan Spring Park also includes baseball and softball fields and the Miracle League facility. For children at heart, there’s the state’s oldest disc golf course, horseshoe pits that hosted two world championship tournaments and a beach volleyball facility, which replaced the old tennis center.
“It was Steve’s idea to turn the old tennis center into beach volleyball,” Stone said. “It was very well received. And that laid the groundwork for the new beach volleyball courts.”
Part of Ivey’s priorities was providing facilities for the so-called “niche” sports.
“We made a decision five years ago that we were going for stuff every city doesn’t have,” Ivey said.
Stone said that decision has paid off for Huntsville.
“When you look at the planning and vision, everybody has baseball fields, everybody has softball fields, everybody has soccer fields,” he said. “But everybody doesn’t have a world-class cross-country course or beach volleyball complex.
“Steve’s been open-minded about creating an opportunity for those types of sports.”
Ivey said the decision to concentrate on those “out-of-the-box” sports was simple:
“Not every child plays baseball; not every child plays softball; not every child plays football,” he said.
The most recent “out-of-the box” example was the announcement of a skatepark joining the offerings at John Hunt Park. There’s also indoor rock climbing at the Johnson Legacy Center.
“I don’t know of any other city that offers indoor rock climbing,” Ivey said.
A lasting legacy
Hamilton described the City’s recreation facilities as being covered by Ivey’s thumbprints. He said projects completed years into the future will bear the hallmarks of his guidance.
“His influence will continue after retirement,” Hamilton said.
That legacy also includes a strong partnership between Ivey’s department and the Huntsville Sports Commission.
“The Sports Commission could not have been successful without the cooperation of Parks & Recreation,” Stone said. “We are fortunate and we’re able to recruit quality events because of the facilities we have.”
Stone said Ivey also made a conscious effort to ensure no park or neighborhood had better facilities than another.
“One of the great things about the City is the dedication to treat all the facilities the same,” he said.
The department sought feedback from citizens on ways to improve existing facilities and to find out what facilities were needed.
“We strived for equality in the parks and facilities,” Ivey said. “We’d talk with the residents and get neighborhood involvement. That’s how you win … it’s a win-win for the neighborhood.”
As Ivey rides into the sunset, what are his plans for retirement? He was, after all, a master planner in helping the City provide outstanding parks and recreation facilities for its citizens.
Besides spending time with his grandchildren, Steve hopes to travel, spend time in Auburn and attend football games.
On behalf of the entire City of Huntsville, we thank you for your service and wish you a happy retirement, Steve!
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