While Rich Mihalic, director of Two Mile Run County Park, has a host of duties, including mowing grass and cleaning restrooms, his key priority is simple - he listens.
"It's the conversation that you need to have with the visitors. What do they like about the park? What do they want?" said Mihalic, who retired today as park director. "It's all about listening and talking to people."
The Franklin resident took the park director's job in the spring of 2008, one year after the 2,695-acre, county-owned park shut down due to legal issues amid the disarray in park management strategies.
During his tenure, the sprawling park has been rejuvenated and offers a wide variety of activities, including cross-country skiing, boating, fishing, camping and more, while also serving as a venue for an expansive list of gatherings, ranging from an international bow-shooting competition to family reunions.
'One step at a time'
Mihalic came by his park management role in a circuitous fashion.
The 1965 Ambridge High School graduate earned a science degree from Clarion University, served two years in the Army and returned to earn a master's degree in aquatic biology from Clarion.
He went to work for the Oil City-based Northwest Planning Commission, where he gained expertise in grant-writing and government contract procurement procedures.
"Many years later, I began to feel it was time to do something different so I applied for the park director's job," said Mihalic.
The county commissioners hired Mihalic, who quickly put together "a game plan" focused on repairing, revitalizing and marketing the public park. One of his first chores, though, was physical.
"Initially, the equipment just wasn't here so I brought my own lawnmower from home and starting mowing the grass," said Mihalic, with a chuckle. "We did it one step at a time."
In addition, his family created promotional park brochures, snapping photos and writing text for the colorful handouts.
Curious as to how Two Mile Run County Park's charges for camping, pavilion rental and other services compared with similar parks elsewhere, Mihalic checked out prices.
"We have to be competitive, so we looked at charges at other camps," he said. "We're still lower than most. ... We are not self-sustaining and probably will never be. But we keep working at it because the goal is to have a lot of people use our park."
Revenues and visitors
The director, well versed in economic-impact scenarios as a result of his previous job, has found a great many park visitors are from other states. Those visits prompt more than park revenues.
"The first thing campers and visitors ask is, 'Where's a good place to eat?' or "Tell me about a local museum.' And they go to the grocery store and gas stations," said the director. "We have so many out-of-state visitors. The economic impact of the entire area - that's the name of the game."
Several large events that number in the hundreds of visitors swell the coffers, too. The annual Memorial Day boat races on Justus Lake pulled in more than 150 participants this year. Next up is the final round of the National Championship Triple Crown archers' competition set for July. The popular outing is expected to draw nearly 1,000 to the park.
As park attendance grows, hitting 28,000 visitors last year - a tally that does not include a day-tripper, occasional hiker or dog walker - the park income from rentals and other service fees has grown, too. In addition, Mihalic has found other sources of funding.
"We started an adopt-a-pavilion program, where (service and fraternal) clubs sponsor a pavilion for a year. It brings in about $3,500 to $4,000 a year and that allows us to replace picnic tables, fix pavilion roofs and more," said Mihalic.
Tapping his grant-application skills, Mihalic used his connections with state and federal agencies to wrangle a $200,000 grant for a new boat launch and handicapped-accessible walkway near Justus Lake. There has also been a flurry of smaller grants allocated for the park.
"We still need to do some things, with the number-one issue being new ADA-compliant restrooms at the campgrounds, the pavilions and fishing pier. That's the top one - upgrading those restrooms," said Mihalic.
Some things changed, others not
While there are upgrades that need to be made, some natural amenities have remained untouched as a result of Mihalic's conversations with visitors.
"We have a lot of Ohio and New York people coming here to camp, and they always thank us for not cutting down all the trees and grasses at the campsites. They don't want side-by-side hookups. They want a little privacy so we left it that way," he said. "It's all about talking to people to see what they want."
On the flip side, some grandparents suggested that while they encourage their grandchildren to camp out, the older generation would prefer "not to sleep on the ground in tents" but instead stay in a little sturdier accommodations, he said.
"So, we added some simple shelters to our campgrounds, especially for grandparents," said Mihalic. "We listen to what people want."
The majority of park visitors "like what they see", said Mihalic, adding that sentiment was evident at the conclusion of the 2018 International Bowhunting Organization's four-day championship shoot last July.
"They asked me to say a few words at the end in front of a very large crowd," said Mihalic. "I asked them if they were interested in coming back to Two Mile and they gave me a standing ovation. They said they loved it."
Luke Kauffman, a longtime park employee and current maintenance chief, will move up to the park director's job. In addition to Kauffman, the park staff will include two other full-time employees and two summer interns.
"I'll be around to help and we have a lot of volunteers, especially the Trail Committee," said Mihalic.
The retired director and his wife, Shelly, have two adult children and three grandchildren.