Papillion Interview with Tony Gowan, Parks and Facilities Director

Papillion Parks and Facilities Director Interview with Tony Gowan

Please tell us about yourself.

I have been a graduate of Papillion La Vista High School back in 1982 so I have been here a long time.

I started working with the city as an assistant golf course superintendent back in ‘93 over at Tara Hills and then was promoted to golf course superintendent in 2007 when my boss took over Eagle Hills Golf Course when it was built.

And then was promoted after that to Parks Director in 2009 by Mayor James Blinn and Dan Hoins and have been the parks and facilities director since that time.

So you have seen able to see quite a lot of changes, then.

Yes, seen a lot of changes within in the city; worked for several really good mayors, really nice guys.

Worked for a really good city administrator, Dan Hoins, and now working with just an excellent just the same administrator, Chris Meyers, that I have known ever since I’ve been with the city.

So I have seen a lot of changes, a lot of growth within the city. So, yeah, I’ve been around quite a while to witness all that.

What do you think have been the biggest changes for Parks have been during your time?

I think the biggest changes have been the expansion of athletic leagues we have in town, catering to their needs in town which are quite vast, trying to keep up athletic field surfaces and keep them in play through weather conditions to get in as many games and practices in as we can. It has become a very athletic-friendly community and with the advent of girls’ softball, the expansion of youth soccer, and then of course, the continued expansion of Papillion baseball which has been big for a long, long time.

Those challenges to meet their needs have been very large and we have met that need and continue to meet that need,

One thing I noticed when we moved here was a lot of emphasis on sport and physical activities. I thought that was pretty fantastic.

There is an added impetus now on the trail system throughout Papillion getting people to and from Bellevue, Omaha, Ralston and La Vista out to west Omaha. We are connected to the Papio Creek Trail Systems, so that makes it quite feasible for people on bikes to move to and from also vast trail system in and around Papillion also not only bikers but walkers and joggers as well.

I’ve seen that [grow] exponentially as well.

I’ve seen so many different cycling events, too.

It is and the Criterium (Papillion Twilight Criterium) we have downtown each late summer that adds a unique event to the Papillion area.

We just added a B-cycle station which is a rentable bicycle station down on the First Street Plaza this past summer and so we are cognizant that people like to get on bikes and commute and try to [go to] and from school to and work and we are trying to make strides to meet those needs as well.

How many parks does Papillion have?

At this point in time, including the big two recreational areas Prairie Queen, Walnut Creek and now with our newest park that was garnered with the annexation that just happened, Cottonwood Park. We are now up to 18 parks, well over 12,000 acres to take care of now, a lot of that in native areas and lake areas that are key recreation areas.

It has become quite a big department to run and take care of.

How many people does it take to take care of all those parks and activities?

Typically, it varies, due to us using a lot of seasonal part time labor and also needing seasonal part time labor to get the Winter Wonderland event done, which is all done within the Parks Department.

We’ll have 8 full-time staff throughout the Parks Department. We will typically throughout the year bring on 15 part-timers as well to help with not only the mowing and trimming, playground care, athletic field care and of course the big event that we do each year which we just got done installing, which would be Winter Wonderland.

Winter Wonderland continues to impress me each and every year. I heard that maybe we had the highest turnout this year. Is that correct?

Yeah, we were just talking about that the other day within the staff wrap-up meeting we had within the Parks Department.

Our thought is that we gauge Winter Wonderland in the future off of this past one we just had. I think we did see the largest turnout we’ve had since I have been doing it, which has been about ten years and that I attribute that to a couple things: We had perfect weather for that event but we also did something for the first this year and that was close Washington Street down, which is 84th Street from Sixth Street to First Street so that we have safe walking lanes to the downtown businesses to the downtown First Street Plaza and just got a load of great compliments on closing that street to make it safe for everybody.

I spoke with several visitors and guests and shop owners about it as well including warming stations along that route too.

Yes, we typically have 7 fire pits we put out in the past years up and around [the] library, and when we closed Third Street off, but with the advent of closing 84th Street off we did build 4 more this year to put down the center of 84th Street or Washington Street, and I think in the future we are probably going to add 2 to 3 more. That’s always kind of a fun thing and kind of an old timey thing to have fire pits going. The people just seem to love them. We’ll continue to keep building fire pits and we will keep adding onto that number.

Tell us a little bit more, please, about Winter Wonderland.

Winter wonderland began back in 2008, right when I was hired. That’s one of the first big things I had to take on.  It’s a joint effort between the city and the Papillion Community Foundation. It used to be called the Old German Christmas, where people would just come out and downtown businesses would be open the day after Thanksgiving.  With the onset of Cornhusker football usually being a game on Friday after Thanksgiving to get more people out, they decided to switch to the Saturday. When they did that, that’s when the crowds really started to pick up.

The Parks Department for the city is responsible for all of the lights that are put up. We typically have one of the children from the coloring contest turn them on with Mayor Black, so we’re responsible for all the lights downtown, at the library, City Park and First Street Plaza. It has just grown like I can’t believe. It’s really become a fun family event and one of our largest single day draws next to Papillion Days- probably fireworks night at Papillion Days that the city and the Foundation sponsor.

How many people did you think you had?

Early estimates that I have seen were anywhere between 6000 to 8000 people. It is by far the largest event the largest turnout we have had. I know at my station during the lighting ceremony I am up by the library and city hall, which is where the primary lighting ceremony takes place. After we got that all done, I took the left hand turn to go down to 84th Street to walk down to see how things were going down there. My jaw literally dropped when I saw how many people were downtown. It was very, very shocking to see [how] many people this event has brought out. It’s a tribute to the Foundation, it’s a tribute to downtown businesses, and it’s a tribute to city staff that put it on as well.   I am very proud of my guys in the Parks Department.

Again, it was very impressive. How long does it take your crews to set this up?

We’ll usually start around the first week in October. We’ve changed that in past years many on the urging of my crews to ask for more time to take their time [to] do it right the first time around so we’ll typically start that first week of October and we usually finish up weather permitting the week, which we have had a really good weather year, we will typically finish up that week of Winter Wonderland.  All and all it’s a good 7 to 8 weeks to get everything installed and I think our estimates right now we are up to about 250,000 lights.


All LED lights as well. It’s all new technology, very low power consumption lighting. That’s all we use anymore. We’ve had very good luck with it.  It’s a long process. We’ve been typically aided by good weather. I keep my fingers crossed every year because that’s what gets us to hit goal for that week we can do testing and looking at things. Guys take great pride in it. They really do as far as putting on the show you saw the other night.

It was outstanding. I saw it last year and maybe year’s previous. I saw butterflies at First Plaza and city hall last year.

That’s something we added two or three years [ago] as a nod to the city of Papillion and its symbol. We’re very proud of that symbol very proud to work for that city, so we wanted to show that off and put them in areas that people would notice them. We had one up at city hall this year. The big one that was up on the east chimney up there but had some mechanical issues with that this year, we are getting it fixed.

And we’ll put the small ones down at the big wreath in the plaza. You’ll see them on the old windmill over by the old Sautter House and then all around city hall, but we try and do that where they are a little bit more inconspicuous that you have to go and try and search for them.

Kind of makes it a fun thing to look for the butterflies. That’s something we consciously did as a tribute to the city and its long heritage.

I know people who saw them and had as much fun as I did. This was the first year I saw them on the windmill, although it might have been there years previous.

Yeah, this is second year for them to be incorporated on the windmill at the historic Sautter House. We try to change it up every year. We want to make it a fun event every year.

We want to have people be able to explore whether it is in and around the historical houses and the school, downtown whether it’s down at the First Street Plaza Park, or whether it’s all the way over to City Park and now over to Halleck Park Lake and Veterans’ Park.

We have lights in many different areas downtown that we’d like people to explore and to discover and it make it fun for the family.

Where are the other areas? You mentioned Halleck Park.

We started decorating Halleck Park last year. We had the idea to light the footbridge over to the island heavily and it really made for a beautiful effect, a really good photo-op location for families.

This year I wanted to do something to honor the veterans as well, down at Veterans’ Park, now one of our more popular parks in all the city. Last week I had the guys do all the spruce trees down there in red, white and blue-a great effect. It really turned out nice. I am very pleased with that and just more areas for people to go out and explore. That’s what we really like for them to do-to discover new things with the display each year.

Any new surprises or items this year?

This year, we added Veterans Park. We did a flyover with Butterfly One, which is the city’s drone. Trent Albers and I went out the other night, one thing they may want to go look at is certain areas [where] there’s one area over between the Sautter House and Portal School where the Historical Society put in a refurbished outhouse to show kids how plumbing and lack of plumbing was handled back in the early days of Papillion. They just might discover Santa is somewhere around the outhouse area. Just something that isn’t involved with lights but more sensory with listening and exploring that they might want to check out. It’s kind of a fun little thing.

I’ll have to check that out myself as well as the lights at Veterans’ Park at night. It sounds beautiful.

It does and City Park is always a big draw for people in Papillion. Mainly because of the stars up in the trees but also the businesses and local churches’  that apply for spots down there to put out their displays. Those change typically a little bit every year with them adding some things. That is where Santa’s Workshop is down there as well, so it’s a nice little segue across the bridge to take the family to walk around down there with the lights. That’s where the Papillion Junior Women’s Club puts the manger scene, as well. Just another area to explore and look at.

I’ve enjoyed the renovation of the sidewalk area and bridge area.

That was done about three years ago and that also incorporated the LED lights into the bridge that can color change into Christmas time colors with red and green which we have fading in and out. Once again, the renovation of the bridge makes it a little bit more appealing for Winter Wonderland to expand to down to City Park [and] make a nice little walk over to City Park to take a look at everything that’s down there.

I think with it being lit and all it helps draw people to.

It does. We get a lot of compliments on that bridge, with the lights typically all warm white throughout the year but different times of the year we can color change them to Christmas colors, change them to patriotic colors for the holidays like the 4th of July, Veterans Day, Memorial Day red, white and blue. It does add something special to draw people’s interest.

I was talking to a city councilperson a while back and she gave me some numbers when areas develop that it have a percentage assigned to it for green space.

Typically the Planning Department works with developers when they come in with new homes, home sites, new areas of home site development. Typically, the Planning Department, that is their role to work with developers to identify useable park space within those developments.  Papillion has always been a leader in the neighborhood park system. You’ll see that throughout the city. When we have new developments come in, the Planning Department usually takes a good amount of time to work with the developer to not only identify how the homes will be laid out, how the streets will be laid out, but also if and where they will put park systems. I know the last big development, North Shore, the area in and around Werner Park, the park over there that will service those community areas will be Prairie Queen. Once again, that was a park brought in by the NRD and then annexed and taken over directly by the city of Papillion. It is something that is built into our review of new neighborhoods that are being proposed and the planning department staff really does a good job of pushing for those green spaces.

I was impressed to find out that was part of consideration for developments.

It is a very important part. Not only do the city leaders in Papillion understand that people want great places to live and raise families but they also understand and we always get compliments on the park system in Papillion and how do we expand on that to meet the needs of those families. The Planning Department is cognizant of that and really takes their time and make great efforts to work with developers on those green spaces.

I am always amazed how nice all the parks are.

It is a concerted effort by an excellent staff that I have. People who are very conscientious and know that I like to have things nice and the city likes to have things nice for its residents, so we really try to keep on a regular schedule of mowing those areas and keeping them safe whether it is on the playgrounds, shelters, athletic fields, we really take the that effort to make sure people are safe in our parks and enjoy them.

What type of special events do the parks host?

We’ll typically are going to host big event like Winter Wonderland. The Game and Parks Commission has Family Fun fishing nights, several times a year at area lakes whether it is Walnut Creek or Prairie Queen or over at Halleck Park Lake That’s become a very popular event that is free to the public that we partner with the Game and Parks Commission. Game and Parks Commission has always been a good partner for the city. They routinely stock our lakes, Prairie Queen and Halleck Park Lake and Schwer Park Pond over in the Western Hills and Hunter’s Crossing subdivisions. That’s one of the events we don’t host, but allow them to do that, and it has become very popular with the families.

What kind of fish are there?

Oh, it depends. I typically tell people to go to Game and Parks Commission website ( and you can go back look at the fishing reports of each lake and that will tell you what is actually being stocked in the lakes around Papillion. I know a big event every year that we really can’t tell people this is the time of the annual stocking of Halleck Park Lake. People really like to bring the kids out and let them see how the Games and Parks Commission works with the city to stock that lake. Typically what the Game and Parks mainly put in the lakes [is trout].

But my suggestion to the people of Papillion if you are a fisherman and you  want to know what is going in your lakes and when they are going in, go to Games and Parks website, pull up their stocking report and you’ll get a really good idea.

Thank you. There has been a lot of races and cycling events and marathons. What part do the parks play in that?

The Parks basically gets the trails ready that are running through the city of Papillion that are accessed by the marathon. The mowing, trimming and cleaning up the trails that the runners will access are my responsibility. Other than that, Walnut Creek has become a very big place for local walks, charity walks, charity runs. We are now starting to see that expand over to Prairie Queen. Both of those lakes have the 8-10 foot wide running and walking trails that make it easy for people to access. We keep up the trails system that’s within the jurisdiction of the city of Papillion so those races can happen and keep them safe.

Thank you. Are there any questions that you would like me to ask that I didn’t ask?

I think you hit on just about everything. Typically people want to know what the Parks Department does in the winter time. I get that question a lot. Winter is one of our busier times of this Parks Department. People may not realize. We do all of our own equipment maintenance with all of our mowers that we have to use to keep up the parks areas. That’s when that major maintenance happens. We are also a big player in snow removal. We actually partner with public works to allow them to use some of our staff when we have snow events. We are also responsible for taking care of snow removal on the trails and sidewalks in and around Papillion property so city parks and city right of ways. So we are busy with that if we have a hard winter, and the last thing we are involved with not only with the installation of Winter Wonderland, but most importantly the removal of Winter Wonderland. We are dealing with very expensive LED lights that we installed in the trees and the parks, so the removal and storing of that is just as important to keep that investment safe as the installation of it.

Thank you.