A reception was held Monday, as the City of Manhattan welcomed the four finalists for its vacant Parks and Recreation Director position.

Held immediately following the monthly Parks and Recreation Advisory Board meeting, each of the finalists spoke candidly about themselves and why they were interested in coming to Manhattan. A majority even had some ties back to Kansas.

Aaron Stewart is currently Director of Parks & Rec. in Garden City and says he came up through recreation primarily in the sports field. He’s held positions in western Kansas and Colorado, but considers Manhattan to be home.

“I am a born and raised child of Manhattan and one of the reasons I’m in parks and recreation is the experiences that I had as a kid growing up here. The fact to be in front of you as a finalist candidate is actually something I always dreamed would happen when I was going to school at K-State for this profession,” he said.

Jeremy Rogers has more than 20 years of parks and recreation experience and currently is Community Services Director in Pinole, California, outside of Oakland.

“I’m originally from Kansas, born and raised in Wichita. I am not a Wildcat, I must admit. I am a Shocker, but I do root for the Wildcats,” he said.

Matthew Enoch is the Community Recreation Chief for Fort Riley, with more than 25 years of industry experience primarily with the military.

“I love our community. It’s wonderful to be here. I am very passionate about parks and recreation and all the benefits it provides all of us,” he said.

Raymond Dunham hails from Greenville, South Carolina, where he manages a $19 million budget and a team of 80 full-time staff, as well as more than 350 part-time employees.

“When I went to City Park yesterday and I saw it slam packed with people, that’s why I do what I do. I love to be able to see how Parks and Recreation affects people’s lives positively. (I love) how it can change direction, how it can save people, how it can help them with health and emotional benefits and how it can build a community,” he said.

Dunham says he’s motivated every time he steps into a community’s parks.

“When I’m having one of those days, and we all have them, how I recharge my batteries is I go out and I look at a program or I look at a park. As long as I can serve the community and see them recreating in whatever form they desire, that’s my motivation, “he said.

Rogers says he’s inspired by advocating for community members with intellectual or physical disabilities.

“Some of my passions are inclusive play. I enjoy providing opportunities for citizens who don’t get to play, that have never been on a playground. Throughout my career I’ve been lucky enough to design four inclusive playgrounds. When I was in Visalia, Calif. I was awarded a $7.9 million grant to not only build a playground, but to build a complete inclusive park, the first ever in the entire state of California,” he said.

He’s also built similar operations in the Kansas City area, including for the Royals.

Enoch says he’s moved around the country as part of working with the U.S. Army but got the chance to come back to the area in 2013 as a branch chief, working way up to his current position.

“When we came back to the area, we bought a house in Manhattan and have lived there ever since. It was one of the great days in my life when I got the chance to come back here,” he said.

Stewart says the economy drove him away from Kansas in 2008 when he worked in Junction City as assistant parks and recreation director. He says his job was essentially written out of the city’s budget.

“Life took me elsewhere, which I appreciated and learned a lot. I came up through recreation primarily in the sports field, doing sports programming, but have had the privilege of working through pretty much all aspects, working with fitness, senior programs, adaptive programs, at-risk programs, and youth and teen programs,” he said.

The candidates participated in an all day meet and greet with city administrators, department heads and Parks and Recreation staff, culminating in the public process Monday evening at City Hall.

A decision from city staff is expected before the end of the week. The new director will work under the supervision of Deputy City Manager Jason Hilgers.

The director position has been vacant since May 2022, following the retirement of Eddie Eastes after 17 years with Manhattan, including 8.5 years leading the department.

The city hired Texas-based Strategic Government Resources (SGR) to conduct a nationwide search that netted 43 applicants from 16 states for the position.