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New parks and rec director gives Howard its ‘best bet to succeed’

Even though Raul Delerme has never watched an episode of the popular TV show “Parks and Recreation,” his nearly 30 years of experience with the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks means he knows what to expect as its new chief.

In June, Delerme was named the department’s new director, replacing outgoing director John Byrd, who retired after serving nine years as the parks and rec head.

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Delerme, 53, joined parks and rec in 1990, moving up the ranks through the years. He began as a park planner, then was a planning manager and, most recently, served as the bureau chief of capital projects, park planning and construction.

Being in the great outdoors has been an integral part of Delerme’s life.

“I always had an interest in nature and sports,” he said.

Whether he was in the woods playing with friends, fishing or competing in baseball, basketball or football games, Delerme was gearing up for his future career.

He grew up in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, and graduated from Pennsylvania State University, where he majored in landscape architecture.

In college, Delerme dealt with mostly residential and commercial architecture projects, but he always wanted to be in a park setting.

In his new role, Delerme oversees 95 parks and historic sites, 9,300 acres of the department’s land, 1,271 employees and more than 10,000 recreation program offerings. His salary is $155,782.

There are three types of parks in Howard: neighborhood parks that are between 1 and 20 acres in size, community parks of 20 to 100 acres, and regional parks, which are more than 100 acres.

During Delerme’s tenure, five community centers have been built, including the Gary J. Arthur Community Center in Cooksville, named after the former parks and rec director Gary J. Arthur, and the Robinson Nature Center in Columbia.

The ‘fun’ of the job

Delerme said he enjoys the creativity of his job.

“I’ve always had directors that allow us to be creative and be unique with our design work and that’s what made this job fun," he said. “We were allowed to do creative things, staying in the forefront of all the trends.”

To stay current, the department has built cricket and bocce ball courts in some of the parks, and is looking toward adding in pickleball courts. There are 27 synthetic turf fields throughout the county as well.

“One of our core values is trend-setting and innovation," Byrd said. “We don’t want [staff] to continue to do things the way that things have been done; we want people to critique us and try to make it better.”

Even with his departure, Byrd said the department will continue to be “as innovative and progressive as it always has been."

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“I’m sure [Delerme] will keep his eyes open for more opportunities and resources for county residents, whatever recreation trend we will need to provide for,” Byrd said.

“The parks in Howard County are not cookie-cutter parks,” Delerme said. “All of our parks are different and unique in some way.”

Delerme’s favorite parks project is one he was involved with from the very beginning: Western Regional Park in Woodbine. He was there from the land purchase to creating the master plan to the park design and finally the construction.

Western Regional Park was dedicated on June 3, 2006. On Halloween of the same year, the Gary J. Arthur Community Center opened inside the park.

The 190-arce park features a wagon wheel of three baseball fields with an overlook tower in the center that has a concession stand and meeting area underneath. There is an additional baseball diamond and a T-ball field.

There are also four multiple-purpose grass sports fields, two synthetic turf fields with lights, tennis courts, two basketball courts and a playground.

Five pavilions are located at the park that are available for anyone to use on a first-come basis. There are also nature and horse trails, walking paths, three restroom facilities and a maintenance facility.

When designing parks, Delerme and his team “really, really listen to the public,” said Anna Wojewodzki Hunter, a parks and rec spokeswoman.

If it wasn’t for a croquet group coming to a meeting about Blandair Regional Park in Columbia, Delerme would never have thought of putting competitive croquet courts in that park.

Blandair is set to be 300 acres once the final construction phases are complete.

Currently in phase three, the department is working on a bocce ball court, horseshoe pits, a maintenance building, restrooms, parking lot and what will become the largest playground in the county.

On over an acre of land, the new 76,850-square-foot playground will be fenced in and will be accommodating for all children.

“We knew we wanted to do a playground for all abilities, for all children,” Delerme said.

The playground will feature a sensory items section, filled with touch-and-feel panels and sound instruments, and a designated quiet area for children to unwind.

Groups and organizations involved in the project include Howard County Special Olympics, Howard County Autism Society, Maryland School for the Deaf and the county school system.

There will also be different sections to the playground that center around certain age groups. The farm section will be for children ages 3 months to 2 years old. Having a playground for infants came from a comment mentioned by a community member at the opening of phase one of the park, Delerme said.

A dinosaur section will be geared toward children between the ages of 2 and 5, and the space section, complete with multiple blue slides, will be for kids ages 5 to 12.

An additional play area will feature a ground level merry-go-round and a climbing rope apparatus.

“This is what is fun about the job; there is nothing like this in Howard County,” Delerme said.

Phases one and two of Blandair built a skills ropes course, a playground, three multipurpose synthetic turf fields, two synthetic ball fields — all with overhead lights — press boxes and bleachers, tennis courts, pavilions and restrooms.

Delerme is hoping to have the playground open by next summer.

‘All the hard work is worthwhile’

When deciding on who should take over as director, County Executive Calvin Ball “wanted a leader who had the experience” to carry on his vision.

“If you look at Recreation and Parks, one of the largest departments in the county, it was not a coincidence I was able to find leaders from within,” Ball said.

Ball said Delerme has that experience to “help move my vision to have [Howard County be] the very best inclusive park system in the country.”

It is important to Ball to have parks that are accessible for people of “every ability and socioeconomic level.”

“Raul gives us our best bet to succeed for everyone when it comes to Recreation and Parks,” Ball said.

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Working with Delerme for nearly 30 years, Byrd said he “was always a team player and [was] very dedicated to whatever he was responsible for.”

Delerme’s work was always thorough and professional for as long as Byrd worked with him.

“I’m happy to turn the reins over to him,” Byrd said. “He will do just fine.”

Byrd, 62, joined parks and rec in 1993 as the bureau chief of parks where he was responsible for all the day-to-day operations, including the parks system, natural resource management, open space management, reforestation, and overseeing maintenance and grounds.

One of Delerme’s favorite things about the job is designing a park or creating a master plan and knowing it will positively affect community members and visitors.

“Especially [for] the children, who get to play on these beautiful parks every day,” he said.

For Delerme, all the hard work is worthwhile at ribbon-cutting ceremonies of new parks and facilities and seeing all the people visiting and smiling.

“I love hearing when I’m at a tournament or something and hearing, ‘Wow, this is a beautiful facility … we have nothing like this in our jurisdiction,'" he said. "It’s kind of neat to hear that and that you’ve had a part in it.”

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