Clearwater taps longtime employee Jim Halios as Parks and Recreation director

CLEARWATER ― After nearly one year under an interim director, Clearwater’s Parks and Recreation Department has a new leader.

Jim Halios, currently the assistant to City Manager Bill Horne, will take over Clearwater’s second largest department on Monday, Horne announced this week.

Halios, 45, began working for Parks and Recreation in 2002, overseeing the city’s tennis operations. He later served as a recreation supervisor, landscape maintenance coordinator, a manager over the city’s urban forestry division and an administrative manager before becoming the assistant to Horne in 2019.

Horne selected Halios after three finalists were interviewed by City Council members, a group of community partners and department leaders. The other two finalists were: Catherine Dunlap, a recreation proprietor at Walt Disney World, and Russell Bosanko, a parks and recreation manager with Snohomish County in Wisconsin.

“Jim continued to emerge as the preferred candidate through all that interaction,” Horne said. “I wanted someone who could traverse the different stakeholder interests that the parks and recreation director has to deal with: relationship building, sound management, understanding what the community is expecting as far as services.”

The parks and recreation department has a higher profile in Clearwater than many municipalities, involved in everything from the operation of the Clearwater Jazz Holiday to its sports tourism that includes hosting international softball tournaments. Its $31 million operating budget is the city’s second largest, behind only the police department.

Halios succeeds Kevin Dunbar, the department’s director of 20 years who was fired in December following three consecutive city investigations that each uncovered mismanagement and lapses in oversight. The investigations followed the discovery in early 2018 that a recreation supervisor stole more than $100,000 in cash from the city over five years.

The first human resources audit found, among other things, that Carpenter’s theft was made easier by the fact that Dunbar had no system in place to check whether certain payments were accurately entered into the city’s payment software.

The search for Dunbar’s replacement was then delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, Horne said.

Halios said between changes in leadership and adjustments in operations in response to COVID-19, he hopes to bring an end to what has been “an uncertain time.”

Halios said he plans to continue to strengthen Clearwater’s sports tourism industry, which Dunbar helped shape by attracting international softball competitions. But Halios will have to do that in the climate of coronavirus, which could mean changing the way events are conducted and visitors interact.

“It’s going to require our staff to take a different approach to things and to really think outside of the box,” Halios said.

One of the more high profile initiatives Halios will be handling is the proposed $79 million renovation of Spectrum Field and Carpenter training complex, the spring training home of the Philadelphia Phillies. The city and team originally planned to apply for $40 million in Pinellas County bed tax money to support the project, but county officials have already indicated they wouldn’t support that amount.

Negotiations over the application have stretched more than two years. Halios said negotiations picked back up again in the past few months after being interrupted earlier this year by the pandemic. As director, Halios said he will be pursuing an arrangement that respects both the team’s contributions to the community but also residents’ interests.

“(The Phillies) are woven into the fabric of the community, but it’s also important we represent the interests of the citizens,” Halios said. “It’s like that old saying, if both parties don’t feel like they’ve got a good deal, usually that’s a good deal. It’s finding that middle ground.”

Halios said another priority is to maintain and sustain all of the departments infrastructure, from natural lands to recreation centers. Next year, he plans to seek accreditation from the National Recreation and Park Association, as a way to maintain standards and improve, he said.

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