Getting to Know You: New Conservancy Executive Director

The St. Paul Parks Conservancy sat down with Michael-jon Pease, our incoming Executive Director. The conversation ranged from making St. Paul Parks number one in the nation to competitive picnicking.

SPPC: What is your vision for the Conservancy in the coming decade?

My job with the board is to grow the Conservancy into the most effective champion and partner for our parks as possible. St. Paul’s park system is nationally known – number three in the country for a city park system according to the Trust for Public Land’s ninth annual ParkScore index. Through public and private partnerships, we have expanded 10-minute park access to 99% of all residents, but our median park size of 3.2 acres is below the national ParkScore average of 5.2 acres. Most importantly, many parks still lack equitable access to the amenities nearby residents most need – like free access to water for recreation on a hot summer day.

St. Paul is a city of neighborhoods, and many of our parks reflect the unique flavor of their surrounding area. From the Japanese garden at Como to the St. Paul China Friendship garden at Phalen to the Sepak Takraw Courts at Marydale. That unique neighborhood culture is a strength that we can build on together. Why should I care about a park that’s not in my neighborhood? Because the work isn’t done until every resident is near a park that meets their family’s needs, connects them to nature and offers multiple ways to celebrate their culture and shared community.

SPPC: Why is that so important to you?

Parks are St. Paul’s public squares – the places where every resident can connect to the natural world, maintain their physical and mental well-being and connect with each other across the barriers that seek to divide us.  Parks also play a vital role in the wider system of land and water management that can create a healthy, sustainable environment. Libraries are our public universities – centers for information, education, and connection to employment. The arts ground us in our humanity; ignite empathy, and self-realization. Dynamic, inter-connected parks, libraries and arts organizations that truly serve all residents strengthen democracy, social fabric and create a safe, livable city.

SPPC: This is a pretty nice spread you have for today’s picnic. Tell us your competitive picnicking streak.

My mother raised the picnic to a high art. For sports fans, it’s all about the tailgate party, but for us it was the picnic. For a night on the lawn to hear Yo-Yo Ma at the Ravinia Festival, our baskets always included the “picnic china,” tablecloths, candelabra and a bottle of bubbly. Even driving West to see relatives, we would set a carefully curated table near the sculptures in one of Nebraska’s amazing rest areas. Simple food outdoors is always a joy, and you can always find great take away near a St. Paul park, or a tasty bite in a park-based eatery like the Dock and Paddle at Como. But you can also up your game with fine cheese, an elaborate tarte, carved fruit or open-faced sandwiches. And an English willow basket is a must.