The James River is swollen from recent rains, and as I sit in my office looking over the swirling chocolate milk-like waters, a Kingfisher lands on a Sycamore branch and reflects, viewing the landscape for food and shelter. As I watch, I too reflect. Since I’ve arrived in Richmond, my window overlooking the James has shown me many great things and I’ve seen the wonderful opportunities the City has to offer. This past year or so has certainly given me much to reflect upon.
January 22nd is a special day for me – for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, it’s my wife’s birthday. January 22, 2019 was also my first day as the James River Park System’s (JRPS) Superintendent. It marked my first introduction to the Richmond community as I attended a city district meeting presenting the Park’s Master Plan.
When I first interviewed for the Superintendent position, I sat at the end of a large table with 10 individuals who formed a panel created specifically to fill this special position. What struck me immediately was the contribution of the community. Most of these folks were not paid employees of the City. These were citizens and volunteers and stakeholders that contribute to the vibrancy of Richmond and our JRPS. As I left the interview, I had the sense that were I fortunate enough to earn this position, I would enter with a built-in network of passionate and engaged people who would do anything to support the JRPS and see me succeed.
We’ve done much since they selected me to lead the JRPS. The days and weeks and months since that initial interview have been busy and productive. Among our accomplishments are:
- First and foremost, the official approval and adoption of the JRPS Master Plan by Richmond’s City Council. This was the first Master Plan for the JRPS in over 50 years. It was an exhaustive process with 10 public meetings, over 2,300 surveys completed in both English and Spanish, a steering committee, a technical committee, over $250,000 raised through private donations, and thousands of hours of advocacy! The hard work to create this guiding document will help to determine the direction of the JRPS for the next decade and beyond.
- 2019 proved to be the most successful year in public outreach and programming in JRPS history. Our staff and volunteers hosted almost 20 separate camps, with over 330 individual programs reaching over 7,000 participants. We worked with roughly a dozen Richmond Public Community Centers; hosted the Meteor Bike Tour, where participants rode 40 miles from Richmond to the mouth of the Chickahominy River to camp under the stars; introduced the JRPS to younger Richmonders through our James River Readers; splashed with Kids in Kayaks, enjoyed BWET programming, hosted NextUp out-of-school biking programs, and brought children to River Romp. We saw a young newcomer to the JRPS catch their first striped bass with their first cast during the annual shad run. Our programming and offerings expanded our outreach to park-goers from 2 to 102 years of age.
- Volunteers – the backbone of the JRPS – contributed over 8,000 hours in the Park. These were individuals, students, corporate and business groups, and support groups such as the Invasive Plant Task Force, James River Outdoor Coalition, James River Advisory Council, Friends of Pump House, RVAMore, and of course the Friends of the James River Park. This is not a complete list, and I know that if we could capture the actual volunteer hours spent in the JRPS that ‘8,000 hour’ number would exceed 16,000 hours.
- In addition to the Superintendents of JRPS and Trails and Greenways, we were able to hire a full-time Volunteer Coordinator, a new Trails Manager, and an Operations Crew Chief.
- Among the amazing projects completed in 2019 were: a refurbished ramp at Northbank and Maymont; the new Northbank Trail Connector; a repaired accessible walkway at Pump House; a new raised kiosk at Pump House; new signage at Reedy Creek; dredging and a retaining wall at Ancarrow’s Landing; service road repair at Belle Isle and Pony Pasture after severe flooding events; new brackets on the grates of the T. Tyler Potterfield Bridge; a new gate at the Belle Isle South Entrance; the Huguenot Overlook handrail and vista renovation; and more acres of invasive plant removal than we care to count.
- Our partnerships expanded with folks like the National Park Service, Virginia State Parks, the YMCA, American Civil War Museum, Venture Richmond, Richmond Region Tourism, Richmond Public Schools, Virginia Department of Forestry, Capital Trees, Groundwork RVA, Master Naturalists, and the James River Association. We also celebrated 10 years of the JRPS under the Conservation Easement with Capital Region Land Conservancy, and welcomed an introduction into the Old-Growth Forest Network.
- In 2019, over 1.95 million visitors came to the James River Park System. This was a record number of people exploring and enjoying the Park.
This, too, is a partial list, and we thank our many volunteers and river patrons. I have to personally thank the dedicated staff of the James River Park System. They are an invaluable resource and make my job that much more enjoyable.
When I look out of my window at the Park, whether I’m seeing a bright new dawn or the last rays of the day’s sunshine, I’m comforted knowing that these people and these events have exceeded my wildest expectations. I’ve been embraced by all of you, and embrace you as my new family, and my new home. I know that I can experience this life with you, laugh with you, and cry with you. Most importantly, I trust you and know that I have your support, and for that I celebrate.
Best wishes for an even better 2020,
Bryce M. Wilk
James River Park System Superintendent