Q&A introduces Lakeland’s new director of parks and recreation

Robbie Spencer
Robbie Spencer

Robbie Spencer is Lakeland’s new director of parks and recreation. He sat down with the Bartlett Express to discuss his new role and how he wants to bring exciting changes to Lakeland.

Can you give me a brief bio about yourself? 

I come from a lot of places. I graduated high school in Ohio. I’ve lived in Florida, I’ve lived in North Carolina, I’ve lived a lot of places. But I did graduate high school from Marietta, Ohio. After high school I went to Ohio University — I actually played football at Ohio University. After I graduated with a recreation management degree, I moved down back to Florida, where I worked in Bradenton, Fla., in the Manatee County Parks and Recreation Department as a recreation coordinator.

After about a year, I moved out to Sheridan, Wyo., and for about three years I was a sports director/recreation program supervisor. Out there, I learned a lot. It’s a different culture out there than it is back east. But with that, they had a pretty well-established department there, and I learned a lot from my director, I learned a lot from the people. It was a great place to work, but when there’s an opportunity to be a parks and recreation director at my age, at 27, you really don’t pass it up.

While I was there, in Wyoming, I almost tripled the amount of revenue and participation numbers. It was a great experience, it was a great learning process, but I’m excited to be here, excited that they started the parks and recreation department again, and I’m here to rejuvenate everything, to bring in all of what they used to have and make it a top-notch department.

I am married with a wife, Brittany Spencer. Then I have a 15-month-old named Jett. We have a dog, and we currently live in Cordova, but we’re looking to move closer to here. We are all Catholic. We have not found a church yet because we just moved here, but we’re looking for one right now.

How long ago did you move here?

We moved here about four weeks ago. So we’re very new. I’ve never been here, never been in Memphis, except for a trip for an interview here when they flew me down. Other than that, I’ve never been here, never experienced—I’ve lived in North Carolina and Atlanta, but that’s about as close as I’ve lived from here. My sister lives on the border of Virginia and Tennessee in the Bristol area, so that’s probably the closest family I have. But, yeah, it was a great opportunity, and I wanted to take it.

How do you like Memphis so far?

It’s great. I grew up in larger cities, so I knew kind of what to expect when I came here. It’s definitely a different culture than out west. Different people, different experiences, different … everything. The scenery’s different as well. But with all these different experiences, I hope to correlate everything and make a great department here.

Why were you interested in this position?

When Jim Atkinson, our city manager, called me up, he really sold me on what they were trying to do. What I enjoy the most is building programs and making something out of nothing because I like to look back and see the kind of progress we’ve done. That’s kind of what I did out in Wyoming. They did have a really nice, established department; however, this area that I was at, as far as the program-wise that was really lacking and one of my challenges, one of my biggest things I love to do, like I said, is build them. So when they told me what they were trying to do out here, I knew there was a great opportunity to put my own footprint on what I see as recreation and parks.
They flew me down, I still didn’t know what to expect from down here, but, again, Jim really sold me on what they were trying to do and what the city wants and what residents want. And I think that, with that support, we can grow into something special.

What are your priorities as the director of parks and recreation here?

First and foremost, it’s re-establishing all our youth programs. We do offer a few, and I know they’re kind of limited but, first and foremost, get those up and running. I do have a lot of plans for what I want to do. It’s a bit late this year since I was just hired, but next year we’re going to do a youth flag and tackle football program. Winter: we’re going to rejuvenate our basketball program — boys and girls. The spring will be soccer, the summer will be baseball and tee-ball.
Actually, now, I’m introducing adult programs as well. So this year we’re going to have adult flag football in the fall starting in Sept. Winter will be winter basketball for adults—this is all men and women. The spring: not really sure what we’re going to do yet. In the fall, once we get our athletic fields, athletic complex we’re supposed to be building, then we’ll probably offer adult slow-pitch softball league. But right now, those are the kinds of thing I’m focused on.

Now I am in charge of the senior citizens center, so we do have a lot of programs we’re going to be offering there, new ones. That’s one of the great things that we do have when I came in. I don’t really have to build too much because we do have a great senior citizen program. So they can go on our website and look at that.

I have established a brand new website (Leagues.bluesombrero.com/lakelandparksandrec) just for our parks and recreation department. My thing I want to bring here is professionalism, notoriety and exposure. I’ve also sent out packets for sponsorships  —I want to establish a sponsorship program for our community, for our local businesses to try to involve the community and business into what we’re trying to do here. I think if you involve businesses, everyone will rally together and make our community better.

You touched on what my next question is going to be, which is, what are some specific projects you plan to tackle soon? Are there any others besides re-establishing these youth leagues and adult leagues?

We’re trying to make our special events also bigger and better. We have our annual Halloween festival in the fall. We’ll also have our winter Christmas festival in December, so we’re trying to expand on our special events for our families.

Again, sponsorships are a big deal we’re trying to get people involved — not only getting people involved, but raising money for our new and improved programs. New uniforms, more equipment. Being a fairly new department, yes they’ve had a department in the past — about five years ago —however, everything’s kind of liquidated and we really don’t have any equipment or materials needed to start up anything.

We do have plans to do a Lakeland athletic complex. With baseball/softball fields, soccer fields, football fields, so we do have a great plan for that. However, we’re not exactly sure when we’re going to break ground. Hopefully we’ll be able to break ground by the fall.

We are also, right now, down by the senior center and International Harvester Managerial Park, building a stage for bands, events — an amphitheater. We’re going to bring in local talent, local entertainment for people.

Have you taken a look at the Greenprint 2015/2040 plan yet? How do you plan to link Lakeland’s trails and parks in that?

I have looked at that. I tell you the honest truth, we have plans, but that’s something that’s a five, ten-year project. I know our city manager and our city planner are working on trying to incorporate everything into this. We do have plans. We don’t have anything set solid right now, but it’s more of a planning process right now. We’ll have more information within the coming months, maybe the year. Hopefully we’ll have a better idea of how we’re going to connect everything. Right now we have plans, but nothing to solidify.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

You know, I just look forward to my time here. Everybody’s been pretty supportive, and it seems like our residents really want new and improved programs. They want stuff that they can offer to everyone. That’s my goal — to bring the best. My goal is for everyone to look forward to bringing their kids and something the parents can be proud of to take their kids to. We’re going to bring something special, I hope, and with everyone’s help and everyone’s support, we’ll make that happen.

Written by Mac Trammell, special to the Express. Contact him at mactram94@gmail.com.