On Monday, after 10 years working in the James River Park — as an intern, then a part-time seasonal hire, then a maintenance worker, then trails manager — Nathan Burrell was tapped to succeed Ralph White as manager of the 550-acre, 20-parcel park system.
I caught up with Burrell this week to talk about the job, the past and future of the park, and unique role this assemblage of greenspaces plays in our civic identity.
With your decade of work in the park, many people assumed you’d be next in line for Ralph’s job. Was that the way it felt to you? Did you have any concerns applying for and then taking the job?
It really wasn’t a difficult decision (because the job) was a natural extension of what I had been doing here in the park. I really had been doing a lot of the administrative work prior to Ralph leaving. ... The concerns I had over moving into this role came about because I had put a lot of time into our trails in the city and making it the trail mecca that it is. I didn’t want to (lose) all that effort and collective work.
(Trails) are integrated into the fabric of what we are as Richmonders. Can you imagine James River Park or the city without trails? That was a critical piece for me, that assurance that the trails manager position would be rehired. It gave me the solace to fully jump into this position.
What will be different or similar in the park system with you as manager vs. White?
Ralph’s management style was very laissez-faire: Live and let live. You’re staff. You know what you’re doing. Go do it. Whereas I tend to be a little bit more hands-on. Maybe that kind of comes from the background of trails and needing to be a little more hands-on with what’s happening. That’s probably one of the biggest differences — our management techniques — but really we’re not that far apart in terms of our overall philosophy of the park and that need to really balance both our natural aspects and our adventure-recreation aspects. We’re very much of the same mind with regards to what the park is, how the park functions and its place in our community. We are an urban wilderness park.
As Richmond grows, how do you see the park changing? How does the park need to change, if at all?
There are many opportunities, especially in the lower part of the James, in our more heavily developed areas … where we can really look to enhance visitor activities, visitor experience. And as we move forward with our Riverfront Plan ... there will be opportunities to look at revenue streams that really benefit the park itself that we haven’t even recognized yet.
How about water taxis that take people back and forth across the river? Think about being able to go over to Ancarrow’s (Landing) from the Intermediate Terminal, a short boat ride after you’ve been hanging out at the Conch Republic. Or from (the north bank) to go back up the canal to Brown’s Island. It’s these types of things, especially on the lower part of the James, that could never happen in the upper part of the James. There are a number of opportunities to have those types of developments while still keeping that character of urban wilderness.
Will your job change at all with the implementation of the Riverfront Plan?
That’s part of my position: guiding the riverfront plan and what it’s supposed to be, what is it to look like and feel like. I think that’s going to be a key part of this position in the coming years, especially as the plan relates to connectivity to and through the park because that’s really the biggest piece of the riverfront plan, that connectivity. Because ... while we have a great park system, it’s spread out.
What does your long-term vision for the park system include? Do you have three-, five- or 10-year goals you’ll be working toward?
I was doing this last night, actually, sitting down thinking about some of our problem areas, some of our issues, areas that we’d like to see changed. Many are areas of deferred maintenance. Most of them are just because we traditionally haven’t had the funding.
Some of the bigger initiatives: Think about the Pump House; get that up and running. I want to work with Ralph to create an endowment, money for the Pump House to develop it into what we think it should be or what the community would like to see. Who else can do that in this city? Ralph White can.
One of the big things is finding those ways to generate revenue, bringing in revenue for the park without degrading the experience.