David Moilanen, a 36-year veteran employee with the (HCMA), has worked his way up the organizational ladder to become the director of the HCMA after starting his career as a part-time golf course maintenance worker in 1974. Essentially a Renaissance man of the HCMA, Moilanen has worked for the Metroparks in a variety of capacities, continuing his education along the way. He holds bachelor’s degrees in economics and natural resources from the University of Michigan and lives with his wife Cindy and son Dave in Livingston County’s Genoa Township.
SCN: You have been an employee with the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority (HCMA) since 1974 when you started as a part-time golf course maintenance worker. How does it feel now to be the HCMA director?
DM: Well, it feels good. It feels like a nice completion, a nice end to the excellent career that I have had with the Metroparks. I have been able to have five or six different careers all with the same organization. As you mentioned, started with the golf course maintenance, then worked as a naturalist for a few years, managed the Kensington Farm center for about ten years, also got to be a public relations information officer for the Metroparks, chief of interpretative services and public relations, and then deputy director and now director. So I got to do a lot of different things with the Metroparks.
SCN: Would you say becoming director was your dream job? Tell us why it has or hasn’t always been your ultimate goal?
DM: Actually, I never really did early on think about being director. I enjoyed every job that I had with the Metroparks throughout my career. As I was in the different jobs, I really enjoyed working with the Metroparks, and I wanted to learn all aspects of the parks. So I looked to find different jobs and to advance in the organization as I grew older and had more experience. As I was the farm manager I enjoyed that but as I was there I took some classes in journalism and public relations because I really wanted to tell people about the Metroparks. I really thought it was a valuable asset to the community. And I was interested in trying to tell the story so I wanted to do that. And I also enjoy writing so that job I really enjoyed. I also enjoyed the interpretative services that we had throughout the Metroparks. It’s very committed to educating the public about the environment. We have 10 different interpretative centers and to be in charge of those was a very nice job too. It wasn’t until I was appointed to be deputy director, which means I was in charge of all operations in the park, that I began thinking about being the director. And that was just six years. It really wasn’t until then that I thought about the chances of being the director. I’m certainly looking forward to having more input into the direction that the Metroparks go in the next few years.
SCN: You graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s degree in economics before heading to law school. What made you decide to pursue a second bachelor’s in natural resources as opposed to continuing with law?
DM: Finally after that first year in law school and spending so much time in the law library, I decided that (what) I really enjoyed most (was) being outdoors. I had worked on golf courses for five summers through college, and I didn’t want to continue with the golf part of it. I wanted to do something more — I guess — intellectual. I really just kind of decided that I wanted to learn about the environment and tell people about it. That’s why I went back to get a degree in natural resources.
SCN: Have you ever had any regrets?
DM: No, no regrets at all. I had a few concerns early on because actually I had to work part-time for about six years before I got on full-time. And I was getting near the end of how long I could hold off without having a full-time job. I really didn’t get a full-time position until I was 30 years old. So that got to be a concern, but I never had any regrets about working for the Metroparks. It’s a wonderful system.
SCN: You’ve worked in various capacities for the Metroparks over the past 36 years — golf course maintenance worker, nature interpreter, farm manager, public relations/information officer, chief of interpretative services and public relations, deputy director, and now director. Please explain what inspired you to take on such different positions and how you have been able to be successful in each.
DM: I’m interested in a lot of things. And I would say I am more of a generalist. I enjoy learning and learning about a lot of different aspects of the park system. Well, first of all I was interested in learning different things, open to trying different types of jobs, and being basically pretty good at each one that I tried. It really enabled me to be successful at each of those positions.
SCN: To what do you attribute your ability to move up through the ranks over the years, from golf course maintenance to the HCMA’s chief executive?
DM: Again the idea of being interested in learning different things and adapting to different situations, and being someone who was interested in the well-being of the organization as a whole. When I was at the farm manager’s job, for example, I didn’t think just of being the farm manager. I looked at how that fit into the big picture. I always tried to see the big picture no matter what job I held with the Metroparks. So being able to see how the other departments were working, what they needed to be successful, I think enabled me to be successful as I moved up the organizational ladder.
SCN: Have you enjoyed any one position over the other? Or has one position been more fulfilling than the others? Why or why not?
DM: No. In the entire length of my career, I have enjoyed every one of the jobs, and they each had their attributes. They certainly all had their stresses and drawbacks. But each one has in my time been very fulfilling, and I enjoyed them all. Now being able to see the bigger picture and wanting to have more input into what the direction of the organization is, I think probably I would enjoy the director’s position best of all.
SCN: In addition to your two degrees, you have completed additional coursework over the years in subjects such as public relations and journalism, zoology, as well as biology. How has that helped you in your career?
DM: Again — to me — to be the head of an organization like this, you need to have a broad-based background and experience. You need to be a generalist as opposed to a specialist. And having all those different types of classes and fields of coursework has helped me to be that generalist, to have a broad range of knowledge.
SCN: With the current economy, you face many challenges as HCMA director. How do you feel about taking on those challenges?
DM: It will be challenging over the next few years because of the decrease in the amount of property tax revenue that we will expect to bring in. I look forward to the challenges — I guess that was another reason why I was successful in moving to different parts of the organization was that I enjoy a challenge. And I actually look forward to the problem solving opportunities as the reduction in tax revenues in particular will require some creative thinking about how to right-size the organization to the level of revenues that we have. But working with a good team of administrators and commissioners, I think we can get through the next few years and onto the future successfully with the Metroparks.
SCN: What do you hope to accomplish while you are director?
DM: First of all, to keep the organization financially stable and sustainable. Second of all, we are developing right now a strategic plan that will guide us into handling some of the specific issues that we have. Another one is trying to make people more aware of the Metroparks and what they have to offer. We are going to put more effort — financial and time — into marketing the Metroparks. I also hope to bring some new facilities. They will not be big infrastructural facilities like a swimming pool or water play area but hopefully we can bring some new facilities — more trails, more activities that meet the current needs of people in southeast Michigan for their recreation.
SCN: Do you have any plans to pursue a career outside of the HCMA? Or do you hope to stay with the Metroparks until you retire?
DM: I’ve been here long enough I guess I will stick around until I retire.
SCN: What’s your assessment of the current Metroparks and their programming at this time, and where do you see opportunities for improvement or changes ?
DM: I think our programming if you look at two aspects: one is the interpretative programming or educational programming that is probably second to none in the state and maybe even in the country. As I mentioned earlier, we spend a lot on trying to educate people about the environment and our cultural history. In terms of our other programs, our recreational programming such as concerts and other events during the summer, we do a good job of those now. I think we can improve and enhance those, offer more of them. And that is one of things we look to do is to try to form partnerships with companies and other groups who can help bring in more, large festival-type activities into the parks, especially during the busy season between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
SCN: Do you see need for any changes/additions at the Kensington and Indian Springs Metroparks in the lakes area?
DM: At Kensington, for an example, we immediately hope to improve the golf course operation by building a new golf starter building there. That one was first constructed in 1960 and has outlived its useful life so we hope to upgrade that so that it’s a more modern building, a better amenity for the golfers.
At Indian Springs, we have two interpretative centers there, a nature center and environmental discovery center. We are combining those two into one center. And the old nature center will be converted into a visitor’s center which will house displays to the public. We are going to try to make a wildlife art exhibit, a changeable exhibit there at that new visitor’s center. So we are going to consolidate the operation of the interpretative facilities at Indian Springs.
Other than that we don’t have anything really planned. One thing we do have at Indian Springs, we have some property that we just purchased, just to the west. We call it the Schmitt Lake property. We hope to open that up for trail use, paths that people can walk through. It’s a very beautiful, very high quality property there that we hope to open up to the public for walking and cross-country skiing.