It’s no coincidence that one has to turn into Community Way to get to the Frances Meadows Aquatic Center in Gainesville.
On a hot, sunny day in the South, the place teems with activity.
Since opening its door in 2008 at a total cost of more than $15 million, Frances Meadows has become a focal point of sorts in the Gainesville community. It is there where 52-year-old Michael Graham, deputy director of Gainesville Parks and Recreation, has his office.
Graham runs the agency’s day-to-day operations and tracks its many assets such as Frances Meadows, which for the first time since it opened surpassed $1 million in revenues at the close of fiscal 2017 on June 30.
Graham also is in charge of an array of venues and programs, including the Civic Center, Lake Lanier Point Park and Athletic Complex and the network of interconnected park trails known as Rock Creek Greenway. Together, the Parks and Recreation programs and assets generate economic impact of more than $16 million.
Melvin Cooper, the agency’s director for 45 years, hired Graham to be his deputy in 2004. Since then, Graham has presented the Parks and Recreation budget to Gainesville City Council with Cooper by his side. The general consensus is that Graham will step into the top position if and when Cooper decides to stop down.
Graham said he’s in no rush to see that day come, an even jokes about it.
“I kid Melvin all the time that when he’s ready to leave, I’m leaving, too, because we have such a great working relationship,” Graham said in a recent interview.
Having enlisted in the Army right out of high school, Graham is the first to admit he was somewhat stiff in his ways. He said that working with Cooper has helped him learn to loosen up.
“When I first came aboard I was much more rigid and much more black and white as they say,” Graham said. “But working at Parks and Recreation, that doesn’t really work. I came to find out it doesn’t work in life either. Almost everything is gray. ... I think I’ve mellowed in terms of that over the years and I think Melvin’s had a big role in making that happen.”
Graham said he’s also learned to be more patient working with Cooper.
“He really wants everybody to be happy,” Graham said. “He wants the win-win in everything. What’s really nice about it is Melvin sets up this hierarchy — this is my philosophy, here’s my work ethic, here’s what I believe in. He’s set it up so everybody below him knows that, and it carries through to everybody that works with us.”
In 1997, Graham left a position as director of the Blue Ridge Outdoor Education Center in Toccoa to take over as executive director of Friends of the Parks in Gainesville. He did so because his wife, Joan, was then commuting to teach at Brenau University.
Graham is convinced that the Friends of the Parks board members hired him because of his advanced degree in geomorphology so he could address the many erosion problems on Ivey Terrace and Longwood Cove, both key components of the Rock Creek Greenway.
Graham remembers the advice given him by the chairman of the board at Friends of the Park at the time, Joe Biddy.
“Joe said to me, ‘Whatever you do, I want you to stay as close to Melvin Cooper as you can and you’ll go far,’” Graham recounted. “Those were his exact words to me.”
Sammy Smith, a member of the Gainesville City School Board, remembers that exchange between Graham and Biddy because he was with Friends of the Park at the time.
“That was sage advice,” Smith said laughing.
Smith said board members were impressed with Graham’s demeanor.
“He came as a well prepared young man, personable and eager to learn, not just about the parks, bit the city and acclimating himself to the area,” Smith said. “Michael had done his homework to be a top-notch candidate, and his enthusiasm to be a self-starter to get Friends of the Parks rolling.”
Graham said it will be a sad day for him when Cooper decides to call it a career. He said people forget that Cooper has been president of the Georgia Parks and Recreation Association and is extremely well respected in the industry.
“This is what he loves,” Graham said. “He cares about it that much. I want him to be able to do this as long as he wants to do it and I will back him up the whole way.”