Browse By

Sullivan, Longtime Czar for Springfield’s Public Spaces, to Park It in Retirement…

Patrick Sullivan

Sullivan: No more parking…well maybe a little. (WMP&I)

SPRINGFIELD—A long awaited departure in a key city department came to pass Tuesday when Patrick Sullivan, the executive director of Parks, Buildings & Recreation Management (PBRM) announced his retirement. A fixture of Council meetings and ribbon cuttings, Sullivan has been easily among the most respected and diligent civil servants on the municipal payroll.

Taking his place will be the mayor’s chief of staff and former city councilor Thomas Ashe. Although a reward of sorts for Ashe’s work on Sarno’s behalf, the appointment received Sullivan’s enthusiastic blessing. However, the moment was very much Sullivan’s. Family, pols, city employees, fellow department heads and beyond packed the renovated former monkey house near Forest Park’s Trafton Road entrance to pay tribute to the 37-year veteran of Springfield government.

Adulation aside, Sullivan said none would be possible without the employees and staff in his department as well as colleagues in city government.

Sullivan’s retirement had been in the ether for some time. His service dates back nearly four decades. However, his current role harkens back to the consolidation of Parks with Facilities during the Control Board era. His is hardly the only major departure in recent months. Turnover has occurred at the top of police, administration and finance, elder affairs and veterans services since Sarno won reelection last year.

Unlike some of these exits, Sullivan is not going away entirely. Both he and Sarno said he will continue to do some contract work to see some ongoing projects to conclusion.

While simple in name, PBRM is one of the more complex agencies within Springfield city government. In addition to managing vast tracts of open space like Forest and Van Horn parks, it manages all city buildings. Consequently, Sullivan leaves an immense mark on both the parks and buildings arms of his agency.

DeBerry School

The brand new DeBerry school is only one of the most recent projects Sullivan helped shepherd to fruition. (via WAMC news)

Along with School Superintendent Daniel Warwick, Sullivan had been central to the city’s aggressive school construction regime. This has included vigorous pursuit of reimbursement from the Massachusetts School Building Authority. About $1 billion in school construction dates to the beginning of his reign over buildings.

Sullivan has been a presence in neighborhoods and in the bog of municipal bureaucracy. That earned him plaudits up and down the city’s landscape. A willingness and ability to get to yes, especially during waves of fiscal tightness that overlapped with his career, made him especially popular with the politicians. They would have freshly mowed terraces and cleaner, more functional parks citywide to tout.

City Council President Michael Fenton noted several efforts just in Ward 2, which he represents, that Sullivan made possible.

“These were all projects that don’t get done without a guy like Pat Sullivan at the helm,” Fenton said.

Few benefited from Sullivan’s competence as Sarno, however. The mayor gave Sullivan the nickname, the “Wizard of Oz.” While this was intended as a compliment, unlike the wizard, Sullivan is not a fraud. (Sullivan accepted the appellation, but turned it around to thank his wife, Nancy, as the true person “behind the curtain.”) In fact, Sullivan is a nose-to-the-grindstone bureaucrat who survived six mayors, a chaotic acting mayoralty and a state takeover.

“You have left an indelible mark on our parks and our city,” the mayor said, after listing many of Sullivan’s accomplishments.

Congressman Richard Neal, who could not attend the sendoff due to Washington commitments, was the mayor who first brought Sullivan on. In a statement, he said “you could not ask for a better public servant” than the outgoing parks and buildings czar. Neal wished Sullivan well in retirement and praised his work revitalizing and maintaining open spaces across Springfield.

Neal Sullivan Sarno Williams

Neal with Sullivan at an announcement last year. (via Springfield City Hall)

“Whether it is the gem that is Forest Park, the soon-to-be refurbished Walker Stadium, or any one of the 51 parks throughout the City of Springfield, Pat’s commitment to serving the Springfield community is evident in his work,” Neal said. “He has been a true steward of the treasures that make our parks system what it is today.”

In an interview, Sullivan said his earliest mandate from then-Mayor Neal was to realize the potential of the city’s languishing parks and golf courses.

“His words were, Go out there and kick some ass,’” Sullivan recalled. “I think we did.”

Indeed, asked about his legacy, on the parks side, Sullivan pointed to early work on revitalizing Forest Park. By the 1980s, the sprawling park ice skate mogul Everett Barney had deeded to the city was facing hard times. It had deteriorated as it became a pass-through between Springfield and Longmeadow. (The town had retroceded land to Springfield after the Barneys’ gift). Drinking, drug use and even car repair had become common, Sullivan said, marring the experience.

“I happened to author the vehicle entrance fee for Joe Deliso and [Parks] Commissioner [Bill] Putnam and they adopted it,” Sullivan said. It a reversal from a few years before when the Board of Parks Commissioners rejected an entrance fee for Forest Park. Residents objected when it moved forward under Sullivan. The complaints did not last, though.

“Within one day, the park was under control, and everyone then bought into it,” he explained.

When the Control Board was poring through city ledgers for savings, it moved to merge Parks with buildings. While Sullivan’s career and background were on the greener side—he is a graduate of UMass-Amherst’s Stockbridge School of Agriculture—he took on the Facilities Department eagerly.

“Parks have buildings, and buildings have open space. So, I think it was a good marriage,” he said. It helped that he had some construction background having worked for companies that managed landscaping at apartment complexes.

Even the fiscal crunches, he said, had been opportunities. He worked with then-Sheriff Mike Ashe to get inmates in work programs. Among them were maintaining city spaces when the department was shorthanded.

Tom Ashe

Ashe shifting into Park. (WMP&I)

While Sullivan praised Ashe as a successor, it is hard to understate what a transition the former’s exit will be. Alongside the library system, the parks are among one of the crown jewels of Springfield. Sustaining it in city who politics and bureaucracy can easily devour will not be an easy task.

While Sarno and Sullivan both cited Ashe’s history and relationships across government, his appointment departs from the city’s habit of promoting from within departments. That may not matter ultimately and Ashe himself suggested that his success will depend on folks within PBRM.

“I look forward to be able to work with them on so many amazing projects,” he said.

The mayor did not announce who would replace Ashe as chief of staff. However, he teased that announcements within his office would come as soon as Wednesday.