Gary Obermiller looks at home in the outdoors. So much so that I feel sorry for the guy who's had so much professional success that he's risen to the level where he now has to wear a neck tie much of the time, but that's the breaks. You see, one day about twenty-six years ago he started out as a volunteer for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and managed to parlay that into a seasonal position as a maintenance worker. Well, a little success can be habit forming, as Gary was recently promoted to Deputy Director over Ohio State Parks and Watercraft.
I caught up with Gary recently at an event in Columbus and asked the Firelands native what it's like to move into such big shoes, and how he accounts for his success.
Gary Obermiller: “It's definitely the biggest step of my career. Parks is a big animal, with lots of moving parts, all across the state catering to millions of people. Never in my wildest dreams would I ever imagine that I would land where I am. I'm honored and humbled, truly. But I think that all worked out that way because I've always stayed grounded, as to who I am. I believe in customer service and public service. I've always gone out of my way to, even if I had to sacrifice personally, to return a phone call or to stop by somebody's house and give them an answer or whatever it takes. I believe in that, wholeheartedly. So, I think that's what helped me get here, that and a lot of just good common sense, and I hope sound judgment. I've done a lot of different things. As you know I was a patrolman in Wakeman for a while and I truly started out as a volunteer with the Department of Natural Resources in 1982. I literally went from a volunteer to seasonal maintenance to seasonal law enforcement, to full time maintenance to full time law enforcement to a manager to a district manager to a regional manager to group manager...I have literally climbed that ladder rung by rung! I was seasonal for seven years before I got on full time. So, you have to be tenacious, you have to be dedicated, there's no question about that. That's the fire that was in my belly, that's all that I wanted to do. To me, there was no other choice.
Byron: There's a growing popularity of Metro Parks in Ohio and incredible popularity of local parks like our Findley State Parks, where it used to be mostly just campers. Why is that?
G.O. : Where metro parks used to be in the game of baseball fields and soccer fields and that type of thing, they have kind of morphed and branched into the natural resources field. Now they have nature preserves, they have parks, they have recreation opportunities on the water, that's been a big part of it. It's kind of coming full circle, people are coming back to these close-to-home types of activities in the out of doors. A lot of people are growing up in urban environments so to get out to country and enjoy the natural resources is extremely important. That's what really driving a lot of it. And hopefully the access and the programs and the promotional and education and awareness that all of us are doing in the natural resources field kind of sparked that interest, and kind of started that evolution.
Byron: You'll be overseeing two departments in the new job. Will you split your time with the new Chief of Watercraft Mike Miller?
G.O. : No, he will be the Chief (of Watercraft). As the Deputy Director he will report to me and we'll work together the larger level stuff; he'll still keep me abreast of what's going on. The larger level stuff I'll play a small role in but most of my time will be at the State Parks.
Byron: When municipalities have decided they couldn't afford the upkeep of parks, they dumped the properties on the State Parks. It's nice to acquire new parks, but there's usually a history of neglect leading up to the turnover. How do you accommodate these parks?
G.O.: In those parks it was usually the infrastructure that was lacking. It's this influx of the (Capital Improvement Fund's) $88.5 million that's going towards that kind of improvement. Some of that will be electric, and campgrounds and shower houses and restrooms and whatnot. We're going to divvy that up and try to make wise decisions on where we are going to put it.
B: So we shouldn't be looking for new boat ramps?
G.O.: Well, the boat ramps, that comes out of Watercraft's money, that won't be part of the capital dollars the Governor sent our way for State Parks. (Watercraft Chief) Mike Miller will continue on with our grant programs in Watercraft to create additional paddling access points, improvements to marinas, NEW marinas, dredging, what we call our “Clean Vessel Act” program where we provide points for them to pump out their boats and take care of that sanitary sewer in a proper way. Those programs are all going to continue, Watercraft has the opportunity to return that money to the community and do really good things.