Johnson County Park and Recreation District celebrates history with 60th anniversary
In 1955, the Johnson County Park and Recreation District was created. The district began its operations out of a small building at Antioch Park with only a handful of employees.
Today, 60 years later, the department has grown into the role as one of the premier parks districts in the Kansas City area and remains the first and only special park district in the state of Kansas.
To celebrate 60 years in Johnson County, the parks district is throwing a 60th Anniversary Celebration at The Theatre in the Park in Shawnee Mission Park from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 20. The event will feature activities for all ages, and admission to the event is free.
Looking back at the park district's history, Director of Parks and Recreation Jill Geller can point to the work of various county leaders, citizens and staff as being responsible for the district's success.
"It's been really astounding to watch the growth of the department," said Geller, who has been with the district for 30 years.
The agency built its park system slowly, starting with the dedication of Antioch Park in 1958 and Shawnee Mission Park in 1962. Geller credits the "visionaries" at the time with seeing the potential in parks like Shawnee Mission Park.
"There was a debate at the time as to why they would buy land out there where, at the time, not many people lived," Geller said. "Thank goodness for them."
Today, Shawnee Mission Park sees more than 2 million visitors per year.
Through various other land purchases and revenue bond projects, the district now manages nine developed parks and four future park sites totaling more than 9,700 acres. The district also operates The Theatre in the Park complex and a dozen sports, nature, and aquatic facilities including the Mid-America Sports Complex in Shawnee, and offers more than 90 miles of trails.
Last year alone, there were more than 7 million visitations and 2.7 million program participations at JCPRD parks and recreational facilities. In 1975, the parks district had 1.2 million visitations and 329,760 program participations.
Former director of the parks and recreation department Gary Haller also said the county's success comes down to the hard work of various people. Haller worked for the department from 1974 to 2001.
"We've had great county commissioners, parks board members and employees throughout the years," Haller said. "Because of the character we had within those people, we were able to get a lot done."
Another signature element of the parks district is the expansive streamway trails system which was completed under Haller's watch. The final phases of the system were completed in 2000 and linked parks systems from Olathe to the Kansas River. It was one of the first stream way parks and trails system developed in the midwest. It also won the National Gold Medal Award in 1995 from the National Association of Parks and Recreation for trails systems in a major city.
Haller said that through the years, the county has continued to keep parks a high priority for the citizens. With Geller leading the department and the County Commission recently approving more funding for future parks, Haller said the district is in "good hands."
Geller said that the district faces some new challenges today as compared to 30 and especially 60 years ago, but she remains optimistic about the future of the department.
She said today, the parks systems has to battle against technology in that younger generations use their leisure time to play video games or watch TV rather than going outside. She said she is confident that modern health science and awareness about the importance of exercise will make the parks and recreation facilities popular destination for generations to come.
"I am honestly very optimistic about that and I see a switch in that trend happening in the future," Geller said.
It is even happening today as the county's parks are seeing higher and higher attendance numbers annually.
To celebrate the district's 60th anniversary, the event on Sunday will include a colorful display of giant kites by the Kansas City Kite Club, and live entertainment by popular Beatles tribute band Liverpool, as well as local favorites Jim “Mr. Stinky Feet” Cosgrove, Four Fried Chickens and a Coke, Travis Marvin, StoneLion Puppet Theatre, and Abracadabra Extravaganza.
Throughout the day, family-friendly activities will be presented by several JCPRD departments and facilities including Children’s Services, 50 Plus, Fine and Performing Arts, Corporate and Community Wellness, Park Police, Sports and Facilities, Ernie Miller Nature Center, and TimberRidge Adventure Center.
A number of other organizations and Johnson County departments will be joining the celebration including the Kansas City Flying Disc Club, Possum Trot Orienteering Club, Johnson County Museum, and Health and Environment.
There will also be hayrides, and a variety of food trucks and a beer garden where food and beverages can be purchased.
Complete event details and performance schedules are available at www.jcprd.com.