2016-03-04 / Front Page

Rec director ready to relax

After 30 years on the job, Brian Costello is ready for something new
By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

Kennebunk Recreation Director Brian Costello, retiring April 1 after 30 years on the job, stands in his office at town hall next to a wall of memories, including a photo from his first week on the job on 1986, when just 16 youngsters boarded a bus for the town’s summer day camp program. (Duke Harrington photo)

Kennebunk Recreation Director Brian Costello, retiring April 1 after 30 years on the job, stands in his office at town hall next to a wall of memories, including a photo from his first week on the job on 1986, when just 16 youngsters boarded a bus for the town’s summer day camp program. (Duke Harrington photo)

KENNEBUNK — In his desk on the third floor of Town Hall, Recreation Director Brian Costello, 56, keeps a summer activities program from 1986, his first year on the job. It details just eight programs, three of which were contracted out and not actually run by the town.

And, on a cork board just an arm’s reach away, Costello has pinned a photograph he took that same year, which shows youngsters getting ready to board a bus to the town’s summer day camp. Counting heads reveals just 16 children.

But today, as Costello prepares to end his tenure April 1, he leaves a recreation department that has grown from 45 programs in all, with annual revenues from participation fees of just $26,000, to more than 600 distinct programs this past year, which generated more than $700,000 in revenue. Meanwhile, those 16 campers have grown to a database of 3,600 families.

On Monday, Feb. 29, Costello sat down to talk about his career with Kennebunk, and to offer some parting advice as he prepares for his next adventure.

Q: Thirty years is a long time, what kept you on the job here in Kennebunk that long?

A: I think when you get to a position in which you like a community, you adopt that community as your own, so you don’t what to go. You don’t want to leave it.

Q: Where are you from and what brought you to Kennebunk?

A: I’m actually from Presque Isle. I moved down to go to school in Orono, than came to this area. I just loved it down here, so I stayed. And I married an Old Orchard Beach native, so that helped.

Q: What started you on your path to a career in recreation?

A: Well, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I was working at a grocery store in Presque Isle and a family friend who was a professor at the University of Presque Isle heard I wasn’t going to college. She sat me down and asked if that was really what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. At 18 you don’t really think about the future. I just knew I had a steady job and made what I thought was good money, but had no idea what else I wanted to do. Well, I had started coaching youth league when I was in the eighth grade, and had volunteered to help at Head Start even earlier, when I was in fifth grade and, based on that interest, she suggested it. I had no idea that was even a course of study in college. Initially, my plan was to move down in Florida and work in resorts down there. When I graduated I went down and interviewed all over the place, I applied at over 100 private resorts, but the more I saw I thought, no, and came back to Maine to try municipal.

Q: What was your first job in the field?

A: In Bangor, I was a playground supervisor. My God, how times have changed. At that time, parents would bring their kids to the playground, kids as young as 3 or 4 years old, and just left them off for the day. Now parents wouldn’t even think of that. Today, we do more by way of organizing things for them, whereas back then kids would make up their own games.

Q: Is there such a thing as being too structured? A: Well, I do think about that a lot. I really do. The answer is maybe it is. But parents just aren’t going to let their younger kids go out all day with run of the town anymore.

Q: What was your first job with Kennebunk?

A: I started as a program coordinator and field’s person, working in the parks. And when I received the interview, the director told me she probably wasn’t going to stay long. This was in March and she thought she’d end up leaving by September. But she left in June. Initially, my position was only a nine-month job, but I took it because, as my wife said, you’ve got to start somewhere. We thought it might be a way to get my foot in the door. And then four months later I was the director.

Q: So, if you have to start someplace, I guess at the top is as good a place as any, right?

A: Right [laughs]. And that nine months lasted 30 years. It’s funny because when I got here, they were going through a lot of directors. Keith Trefethen, who’s now the town manager in Arundel, he was the director, then Ruth Olsen, then Denise King and then me, all within a five-year span.

Q: Why was the turnover so high at that time?

A: I don’t think the town knew what they wanted, just that they wanted something. And the townspeople, they were very hungry for something. There were a lot of parents at the time always upset about one thing or another, and yet we only had 26 programs. I’ll be honest with you, my first month here [as director], I didn’t think I was going to last. It was rough.

Q: What turned the tide for you? A: Perseverance. Just pressing on. Their person who was here before me was in the recreation program while I was at Orono, and she was a 4.0 student. She was the best. She made us all look very bad. But she only lasted here a little over a year. Same with the person before her – another top student. But they both got burned out quick. When I came, I didn’t have the same kind of grades either of them had in college, but I stayed, I think, because I was just persistent. My parents will tell you, I was the kind of kid who’d always stick with something once I got it in my head.

Q: How different was the town’s recreation program when you first started?

A: Well, first off, the town was very tiny. I’d guess it was half what it is now. But it grew and with it everything else grew. During our summer registration this year, as we were doing our cash-out, we realized that in one three-hour period we took in more in revenue than we did the entire first year I was here.

The rec department here was founded in 1964 around a summer day camp of different activities over at the Sea Road School. For years it was the backbone of this department, but even when I started it was just four hours per day for six weeks, and the first bus I took over had just 16 kids. Today it’s an all-day program with more than 200 kids, and at one point we had 315.

Q: How much has the department grown, in terms of employees.

A: When I started it was just myself and a secretary, full-time, with maybe 20-30 part-timers. Now we have five full-time people, but keep in mind that’s five people doing 600-some activities, compared to 20-something back then. So, it’s a lot different.

But of course, we have about 120 part-time people, and probably 60-80 volunteers. And they’re all very important. It’s the staff that makes this department, it really is. Fortunately, we have a lot of good staff that stays with us. I don’t want to say “mature,” but let’s say more experienced in the community. [laughs] We’re just very fortunate in who applies. Our average day camp staffer is 23, whereas nationally, that’s 16 or 17.

Q: And most of your programs are self-funded, is that correct?

A: Yes. The programs cost, total for everything, $807,000, but that’s broken down into facilities, lifeguards and then recreation. On the recreation side, we request $100,000 in tax dollars, for things like the lifeguards, Eastern Trail maintenance, the teen center and fireworks, that don’t bring in any revenue. So, only about one-eighth of the total budget is supported by tax dollars. But, in the last few years we’ve returned into the general fund at the end of the year almost $100,000 – and sometimes over $100,000 – that we didn’t spend. So in that sense, it’s a wash.

Q: What program are you most proud of?

A: Oh, I can’t pinpoint it. It’s all of it. What I’m most proud of is that we do everything for everybody. We don’t do just summer camp or sports programs. We do a summer theater program. We have another theater program besides that. We have concerts in the parks. We do activities for adults and seniors. Our three buses are always off on trips somewhere. We do canoeing, kayaking and fishing. We just bought nine fat-tire bikes and we’re going to start a program with that. We do WinterFest, HarvestFest, the Halloween party, an Easter Day hunt, Santa calling. In the last couple of years we’ve taken on some after-school programs that the schools have asked us to do that they can’t do anymore, like band, and robotics and violin lessons. Those have all been very successful. And then, of course, there’s the Waterhouse Center. That’s a jewel for the town that is just going to get bigger and bigger. So, it really is everything for everybody.

But one thing I am proud of, in part because it took so many volunteers working together to make it happen, was when we redid all of the playgrounds in town. I can remember when I first came to town, we had a 12-foot metal slide in one park that was facing the wrong way, directly in the sun. That thing must have been 120 degrees during the daytime. Maybe more. Kids burned themselves. And there was no fall zone. You fell where you fell. And the merry-go-rounds, those were the source of a lot of broken arms, broken legs, concussions.

Q: Have you lost any programs over the years?

A: Well, we’ll do anything if there’s enough interest in, but if interest fades away, we’ll stop doing it. Paintball is something that came and went. We used to do whitewater rafting for the kids and that was very successful, but then that stopped. The public drives it. If we think it’s something we can break even on, without the cost being prohibitively high for the average family to participate, we’ll do it.

But then the town government drives some other thing. I’ve also been beach manager for the last five years, in charge of the lifeguards, but I’ve heard they’re moving that over to fire and rescue. The replacement for me will not have to do that, or manage beach parking meters. We also used to maintain the parks, that was a real big part of what we did. But selectmen made the decision to move over to public works. We still work with them, but they handle the maintenance.

Q: What was the hardest program to get off the ground? A: The budget [laughs]. We’ve had years where there’s a group, and I think it’s a very small percentage of the overall population, but they’re very vocal, who feel that we are a non-essential item. I certainly don’t agree with that?

Q: During the most recent budget sessions, some selectmen suggested Kennebunk share a recreation program with Kennebunkport and/or Arundel. Do you think that’s feasible? A: I don’t think that should be done, I really don’t. I think the only way that could be done is if there was one government, if all three communities became a single town, under one board of selectmen, with one fire department and one police department. But that’s tough to do in the state of Maine. People like their town identities. But that said, we work very well with Arundel and, especially, the Port. For the longest time we’ve had agreements where we would run one program and they would run another.

Q: Why do you think a recreation department, especially one that is fully funded, is so important?

A: When people choose a community, the schools, the parks and recreation is a big part of it. We’ve heard many, many times from people who chose to locate here, that everything that we do was a big part of it.

And I think the home values of Kennebunk have stayed the way they are, and stayed strong, despite the growth, and I think the recreation department is a big part of it. It gets people out of the house, it gets people not just physically active but active meeting other people. Those interactions help build a sense of community. From the time they’re kids, or young parents, they get involved with the town and that leads to them caring about the town and being involved in all sorts of municipal activities in addition to recreation.

Q: How has the character of the town changed over your 30 years here?

A: Well, the people are more involved in the town, more than they have ever been. Parents want more for their kids, they want more for themselves. That’s a really good thing.

Q: What do you enjoy most about the job? What’s kept you coming back day after day for 30 years?

A: Diversity. When I worked in groceries, I knew every day exactly what that day was going to be like. But on this job, each day you come in, you never know what’s going to hit you. And you get to work with people and the kids. I like working around the public.

Q: Is there anything the recreation department isn’t doing now, that you think it should be doing?

A: Probably building the teen base. We have the teen center. But it seems that as the kids get older, they do less and less with us. Although we have all the resources to do things, they just don’t come our way. You asked about a program that was hard to get off the ground and the teen center, that’s one. It’s very successful now, but in the early ’70s it was actually shut down because of the fighting, the drinking, the drugs and all the bad stuff that was going on. We had to fight to get it reopened. The key was that we hired someone to be there all the time. The Teen Extreme program has gone from 18 participants to 80. But the teen center is a drop–in center and I’d like to have more programming. We’d love to have a senior center, as well. There is The Center in Lower Village, but we’d like to have one here in town.

Q: Does the town need a community center or does the Waterhouse Center serve that purpose now?

A: Well, it does host a number of fantastic programs. But we also have the schools. We have a great working relationship with the schools. All of the principals and the superintendent, they treat us as their own. I think we’re doing well without a community center, although that would definitely add to what we do.

Q: What about Sea Road Elementary School? There’s talk the RSU may close it. If that happens, should it become a community center?

A: Oh, yes, most definitely. That would have been great. That would have kept me here a few more years. It would allow us to house everything, for kids, teens, adults and seniors, under one roof. With every age group at one site, running into each other, knowing each other and seeing each other all the time, the adults would learn, I think, how great the teens in town are to work with. And it would allow us to actually be among the people we are working to serve. Right now, we are definitely tucked away here on the third floor of town hall.

Q: The skatepark is still an unresolved question. What do you think should happen?

A: Personally, I think it should stay where it is. I understand some parents with younger children worry about it being out of sight, but I worry about the teens being put somewhere where they’re put under a microscope, where they’ll have so many people after them that they just won’t go anymore.

It’s funny, when that park was first built, we put together a committee of 15-20 teens, and I have never been on a committee with more respectful people in my life. When somebody talked, everybody stopped and listened. There was never a bad idea, every idea was listened to and talked about. We accomplished more in those meetings than I’ve ever seen any group of adults accomplish.

Q: Some of those teens may have kids of their own using the park now, do you think?

A: [laughs] I don’t know about that but I remember about two years ago someone came in, she was probably in her 30s, and she looked at me and said, “You’re still here?” She had children 10 and 12 in various programs and she was first here when she was 6 or 7. I remembered her from then and I thought, ‘Wow, I’m getting old. Thirty years goes by quick. It’s really something.’

Q: So, why retire?

A: Well, I’m not really retiring. I’m just moving on to something else, although I don’t know yet what that thing is. But there comes a time in your life when you’ve done as much as want to do in something. I felt that everything was going really well, that everything was in place so somebody else could come in and do the job without missing a step. It’s a good time to go because everything here is running the way I want it to go.

Q: What qualities should your replacement possess?

A: They have to be a people person, someone who is willing to take this community as their own, completely their own. They should be able to bend and be able to be flexible with things. They definitely should be someone who is outgoing, but, as much as they can, non-judgmental.

Q: Have you had conflicts over the years?

A: Well, there’s always conflicts. That comes with working with the public. But it’s a small, small, small percentage. Most people really appreciate what we do. I mean, there’s always going to be someone who’s unhappy with something. You can’t have an event with 500 people or more and not have someone be unhappy with what’s going on. But there was never any conflict that ever made me want to leave this job. I’d say the most conflict has come during budget time [laughs].

And that would be my other advice to the next director – don’t take anything personally. And I admit that’s sometimes hard to do. When the selectmen were sitting there just a few weeks ago saying maybe they shouldn’t replace my position, that maybe they could find someone to do it for $15 an hour, that hurt some. That was really rough on the staff. Everybody works so hard here. We’re a seven-day-a-week program, and we hear cut this, outsource that, get rid of the other thing. I think we’re overlooked as a public service. What we do is so much needed, and it makes people happy. It really does.

Q: So, you think it takes a full-time, salaried person to run Kennebunk’s recreation department?

A: Oh, sure. Just compare what our department does with five full-time people against what some towns are doing with 10 or more. I can’t count the hours I put in. You’re never not on call, especially in the summertime. My only concern is that selectmen should have started searching for my replacement right away. That’s why I gave a three-month notice.

Q: Will you stay past April 1, if a new director is not found?

A: Well, I’ll do whatever [Town Manager] Barry [Tibbetts] asks of me.

Q: What if what he asks is, hey, why don’t you reconsider retiring?

A: He’s already asked that. [laughs]

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