After more than 27 years of working in the Dallas Park and Recreation Department, Carolyn McKnight stepped away to work on a local government project jumpstarting minority-owned businesses. It was gratifying work, says McKnight, but ultimately wasn’t where she wanted to be.
“I said to myself, you know, I really miss [the parks and recreation] business,” she recalls. “And I want back in.”
The next logical position for the former parks system assistant director was at the top, but that spot wasn’t open in Dallas. McKnight began casting about for new opportunities in the Gulf South. She knew about BREC from her tenure as a management instructor for the National Recreation and Park Association. BREC employees had taken her course, and she regarded the system as stable and well-run.
“I was excited about the opportunity to work with such a strong, progressive park system,” McKnight says.
Her reception in Baton Rouge has been positive. The business community regards her as a public-sector official who sees the value of public-private partnerships. “Carolyn gets it,” says Brock Kantrow, executive director of the Baton Rouge Basketball and Volleyball Association, which partnered with BREC to open the Toyota Automotive Group Sportsplex just before McKnight’s arrival. “She understands these relationships have to happen for BREC to grow.”
The BREC Commission also believes McKnight is succeeding. In late January, the governing body voted unanimously to increase her salary from $150,000 to $157,000.
“I think she’s a visionary,” says Commission Chair Kenny Riche. “She sees opportunities and is able to react to them, and is a great salesman for BREC. Everywhere I go with her she’s got her presentation ready.”
Small in stature (she stands 5’2″), McKnight’s outward appearance belies a tough core. A retired colonel in the Texas Air National Guard, she served for 29 years in both the Air Force and its reserve unit. Her military service started in the Air Force ROTC program at Alabama State University as a way to help her parents pay for her college education.
“I loved it,” McKnight says about her military service. “It gave me a chance to travel; it allowed me to serve my country. There’s no better leadership training.”
Her military service also set the tone for an active life. McKnight is as much a consumer of BREC parks as she is their leader. She gets excited when talking about the range of activities that BREC offers and what it could add in the future, including outdoor exercise bikes for adults watching their children play, and a new surfing amenity called a Wave Runner that could keep Liberty Lagoon fresh for young people.
“She’s the kind of leader who’s much happier being out and visiting the parks and facilities than being behind the desk,” says BREC Commissioner and Human Resources Committee Chair Craig Freeman.
Most weekends, McKnight hits a BREC golf course with her husband, Phoenix native John Fredd.
“This weather has been a challenge,” she says of the recent rash of cold and ice. “I’m ready to try out my new pink clubs.”