Ron Olson's Challenge
Tall and lanky, Olson is sixty, and his tousled, straw-colored hair is turning gray. Parks have always been his thing. An avid runner and outdoor enthusiast, he majored in recreation and parks administration at the University of Minnesota and got a master's in the same subject from Indiana University. He spent eleven years in Maryland's parks system and two years in Indiana's before being hired to run the Ann Arbor Parks and Recreation Department in 1985.
The next two decades were the glory years for the city's parks. Backed by environmentally minded voters who approved new taxes to expand and maintain the system, Olson added thirty-five parks and more than 360 acres of land. He oversaw the creation of the Leslie Science and Nature Center, the founding of the Natural Area Preservation program, and the transformation of an old gravel pit on Pontiac Trail into a park with walking and mountain bike paths, and a fishing pond. The city named it in his honor-though he says the credit is really shared with the many good staffers he worked with over the years.
Along the way, Olson twice served briefly as interim city administrator. But as a senior, high-paid employee, he was seen as a drag on the city's increasingly tight budget, and in 2004, at age fifty-five, he was nearly forced into early retirement. Instead, he found a new, more challenging job in Lansing.