After leading the charge for public recreation in Ridgefield for 41 years — carrying the flag for fields and programs, buildings, maintenance and a “pay as you go” approach — Paul Roche is retiring.
“We’ve had great people,” he said. “Everybody works together as a team to make this thing go, and they all feel part of the team.”
Roche took office as Ridgefield’s director of Parks and Recreation in January 1977, and will step down at the end of March.
He’s worked under five first selectmen — Lou Fossi, Liz Leonard, Sue Manning, Abe Morelli, and Rudy Marconi.
The Parks and Recreation offices have moved four times in those years, from the small house at 19 Market Street to Yanity gym to the refurbished Barlow Mountain School to the current Ridgefield Recreation Center off Danbury Road.
“We had myself, an assistant director, and two parks maintainers. Everybody else was part-time …,” Roch said, “and then summer help.”
Today Ridgefield Parks and Recreation has a full-time staff of 31, a part-time and seasonal staff that goes from 120 in winter to a summer peak of about 225 — when day camp and Martin Park Beach are in full swing — as well as 25 or 30 independent contractors leading classes and programs.
“We had, I think, seven athletic fields — six or seven,” Roche said.
The department’s annual budget was $183,000, with revenue of $122,000 back then. Today, it’s $4,597,000 with revenue of $3,186,000.
“The reason we were so successful was that our strategic planning process works from the bottom up, and not the top down,” Roche said.
“Every staff member from the maintenance person up has a say. They work together as a team. And we’ve have had terrific staff over the years who care about our programs, care about our department and about the town, and that’s how we made a go of it.”
His tenure began with what seemed a catastrophe. The heating system at Yanity gymnasium — the department’s main program facility — failed.
“The ends of the facility were glass, and most of the windows had to be replaced,” he said.
A huge fan — five feet high and incredibly heavy — had to come out.
“They had to break the building apart to fix it,” Roche said. “A crane came in.”
Roche reduced the cost with grants under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act — a federal job training program.
“There was a lot of unemployment,” Roche said. “We had five or six people.”
“We hired a couple of real carpenters. We brought plumbers in,” he said. “We had to break the walls.”
In his early years the department had a teen center in Ballard Park, and a senior center where the OWLS — Older Wiser Livelier Set, an organization still active today — gathered.
“We probably had five or six recreation programs,” he said. “We had one called Sixty-Plus, an exercise program. We had yoga. We had the Joan McDonald Dancers. Horseback riding. Tennis. Gymnastics. And day camp, of course.”
Early in Roche’s tenure the League of Women Voters did a study of town recreation programs, and recommended an ambitious upgrade.
“They said we should be both public and private recreation — which we have today. The town should provide more tax support for recreation programs and facilities. We should develop a program for those who don’t have the ability to pay. More programs for all ages. More programs for teens, and the handicapped and senior citizens.”
The league also recommended field construction, following an architect’s cultural and recreational plan for East Ridge.
That vision has been made real. Fields were built along the ridge — Onalfo, Diniz, Scalzo, the rebuilt Governor Park. And cultural facilities have blossomed there, too — often with town support, if not under the Parks and Recreation Department: the Theater Barn, Ridgefield Guild of Artists, the Ridgefield Playhouse.
“It all filled out that cultural end of it,” Roche said.
Roche recalled fund raising to build a basketball court behind the Venus Building, talking to the late Gordon McGovern.
“He said, ‘How much does a good basketball court cost? How much for lights?’”
Roche estimated about $67,000.
“He wrote me a check — a crumpled checkbook out of his pocket,” Roche said.
McGovern’s parting words were: “And, if you need more …”
In the early 1980s the department took on upgrading playing fields — and their maintenance.
“We designed a plan of development and maintenance for all athletic fields. We financed it with a $1.5-million bond issue and we increased our maintenance staff by two personnel. And we developed a field use plan that for the first time provided for resting the fields,” Roche said.
Parties reached an agreement to share maintenance costs: sports groups covering a third, the Parks and Recreation Department covering a third, and the Board of Education — many of the fields are at schools — covering a third.
“It was unheard of,” Roche said. “What it ensures is that we had good fields — and still do today.”
“We developed a lot of ball fields,” he said. “A lot of existing properties were expanded, to make them large enough for soccer and multi-use.
“The growing program was soccer,” he said. “Soccer went from 50 kids to 2,000 kids almost overnight.”
Parks and Recreation also supported beautification. The Greening of Ridgefield, led by the garden clubs, planted trees on Main Street and at Ballard Park.
“We had a ‘trees for town’ program where we sold flowering trees for people to put in their yards,” Roche added.
The Friends of Ridgefield Parks and Recreation, started in 1986, raised funds for public purposes — the playground in Ballard Park, The Barn teen center, renovating the Spotlight Theater, Ballard Park beautification.
“For me, personally, it was exciting. The town wanted what we were doing, and everything was ‘pay as you go,’” he said.
The programs were designed to be largely self-supporting in terms of operating costs.
“That was just starting to catch on, nationally,” Roche said. “Ridgefield was in the forefront of pay-as-go recreation.”
A huge change came in the early 1990s. The Ridgefield Family Y had bought the former Barlow Mountain School and added an indoor swimming pool — but it went bankrupt.
“The selectmen asked us to study taking over the Y building,” Roche said.
“It needed a new roof. The heating system was in poor repair. It was in very poor condition and it couldn’t be maintained as a recreational facility,” Roche said. “That was one of the problems the Y had. They didn’t have enough money to keep it operational. They shut off the water softener and it ruined the valves.
“I worked with a group of commissioners, staff members and private citizens to develop a plan for the facility,” Roche said. “We told the selectmen we needed $1.5 million to do the repairs and an operating budget of $1.5 million a year, and in three years we could make it ‘substantially self-supporting’ — not the capital costs, but operating costs. — with memberships and use fees.”
Day care — which the Y operated — was outsourced to Nan Howkins, a child care professional.
She rented 10,000 square feet of the building.
“That payment paid all my heat and lights,” Roche said. “The other thing she did, she had 200 kids, and they took all our programs. She gave us a program base.
“Within seven months we had 4,200 members and we met our ‘substantially self-sustaining’ number in the first year,” Roche said.
The school population grew and another school building was needed. As part of the circa 2000 “school bundle” program, the Barlow Mountain building was returned to school use — although the pool and private day care operations continued there — and the new Ridgefield Recreation Center with its indoor pool was built off Danbury Road.
Asked about the biggest accomplishment of his 41 years, Roche didn’t hesitate.
“It has to be this building,” he said. “I can’t think of another town our size that has a recreation center like this.
“This was designed by the staff,” he said. “We went on field trips to recreation centers, YMCAs, Jewish Community Centers. And each group that went reported back on what was good, and wasn’t so good — both facilities and operational procedures.
“Everybody, including program and maintenance people, front desk people, had a say in our plan — which was kind of unique,” Roche said.
“People wonder why we have such wide hallways,” he said. “Sometimes on the weekends you’ll see families bring pizza in the hallways while the kids are at activities, and the siblings are playing games and basketball is on. It’s a family atmosphere. You may stop in and see a puppet show, or a guitar player.”
So what’s next for Paul Roche and his wife, Debbie?
“Undecided,” he said. “But we’re going to do something. You’ll have to ask her. I might like to do some fishing.”
A retirement celebration is planned for Thursday, March 29, at Silver Spring Country Club. Anyone interested in attending should call Jane Byrnes at 203-431-2755, ext. 2116.
First Selectman Rudy Marconi paid tribute to Roche on his retirement.
“Paul came to Ridgefield when Parks and Recreation was in its infancy stages,” Marconi said. “I remember it being located over on Market Street in one of those little houses there. Yanity gym to Barlow School, now to the rec facility. He has shepherded the program through a time period when we experienced substantial growth, and a desire for our fields and our programs to be the best — and Paul delivered that.
“We will forever be thankful, for not only his years of service but his ability to harmonize with people, and to kindle their philanthropic interests,” Marconi said.
“We wish Paul the best the retirement years have to offer, and hope that he and Debbie enjoy a fruitful, happy and successful retirement.”
Roche couldn’t help but get a little philosophical.
“I have to say, I’ve had some difficult times — which we got through — but all in all there hasn’t been a time I haven’t enjoyed being in this position, in 41 years,” he said.
“There was always a new project, like the Spray Bay, or the Ballard Park renovation, or the playground, or the skate park, that was supported by philanthropically minded people, and always new programs and ideas from the staff,” he said.
“I’ve been a part of something very special here.”