Don Meeks takes the reins at Chehaw
Jan 04, 2016
By Brad McEwen, Albany Herald
ALBANY — For new Chehaw Executive Director Don Meeks, leaving his native Midwest and putting down roots in south Georgia to become an integral part of one of the area’s most popular attractions has provided enough adventure and challenge for him to settle down and leave behind his self-proclaimed life as a “vagabond.”
That vagabond life first brought Meeks to Albany briefly in 2005 when beloved naturalist and Chehaw patron Jim Fowler asked the contractor to help build a new exhibit at the park.
“I had had a contracting business in Montana, building residential homes, light commercial, stuff like that,” Meeks said shortly after learning he would officially succeed Doug Porter, becoming Chehaw’s top executive on New Year’s Day 2016. “In about 2000, I had closed that business down and started traveling around being a vagabond contractor.
“In the process of doing that, I met Jim Fowler. I worked on his house up in Connecticut, fixed a few things here and there for him, nothing major. He asked me to come down here in 2005 to build the Birds of Prey exhibit.”
Although he completed the birds of prey exhibit, which is now the area of Chehaw where the park hosts the annual Native American Festival, Meeks said the project lost funding and never materialized, so he returned to his lifestyle of moving from place to place, but staying long enough to get a real feel for the any area he was in.
“My goal as a vagabond was always to be somewhere long enough to not be a tourist,” Meeks said.
Fortunately for Albany and Meeks, he returned to the Albany area in 2009 when the leadership at Chehaw asked him to build another exhibit at the park. It was during that visit that his wandering spirit found at least one important thing that encouraged him to stay.
“The park asked me back here in 2009 to build the meerkat exhibit and to do just a bunch of general repairs on the park,” Meeks said. “I think I came probably in the end January and worked through the summer and fall and, in the process of doing that, I met a woman.”
Not only did that lead Meeks to his second marriage, which is still going strong after six years, it gave him an opportunity to join the Chehaw team full-time, where he has since become an important part of the park’s future.
“Marriage and being a vagabond do not go well, so I needed to have a job and, about that time, the maintenance manager here was having some health issues and retired,” said Meeks. “And I was really kind of a natural fit for that job and got it.”
Over time, Meeks not only engineered some important improvements to the park, he also grew into the role of park operations manager, which brought with it an entirely new set of challenges.
“The position evolved two years ago into park operations director,” said Meeks. “We reorganized, streamlined, and eliminated a couple of management positions. I essentially came over everything operationally at the park. Most of the employees moved in under me, so my administrative duties went way up and I still maintained oversight on the maintenance department.”
Although there were certainly times where Meeks’ changing role was challenging, overall he credits the fact that he was asked to wear many hats as being one of the most important aspects of his time at Chehaw.
“This park is a unique experience,” said Meeks. “Not very many people get to work in a place like this. And the job here is an amazing job. Every five minutes you’re going to be doing something different. And that appeals to me a lot. I absolutely could not do the same thing every day. That would not have worked.”
In addition to the thrill of doing new and exciting things on an almost daily basis, during his time in Southwest Georgia feels he has connected with a vast community of people.
“In the process of everything I made some real good friends here,” Meeks said. “There are super people here.”
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
In fact, Meeks’ connection to the community and his fondness for those who call Southwest Georgia home are the chief inspirations for his view of the future of the park. As far as Meeks is concerned, Chehaw’s standing as a community partner is of the utmost importance to the park’s future.
“I think another thing that we are actively doing now, and I feel that it’s working, is that we are actively trying to reach out into the community and rebuild or build partnerships with the civic groups, the citizen groups,” said Meeks. “Our long-term survival here is based on our local community supporting us and I think we have isolated ourselves a little bit over the years. I think we’ve evolved enough to understand where we need to go and we have to reconnect to the community. We have to be a partner for people to accomplish what they need, rather than us looking at what we need.”
Part of gaining the public’s trust is being able to present a positive face to the community in general, something that Meeks feels wasn’t always the case.
“I think we’ve changed the momentum of the park,” Meeks said. “It seems to me that we were slowly spiraling down. I know that we were struggling financially. We’re still struggling financially, but it was evident in our structures. The buildings were dilapidated, the grass wasn’t mowed and stuff like that.
“And now we’ve been able to do those basic things to start turning that momentum around. I think we’ve evolved enough to understand where we need to go and we have to reconnect to the community.”
In addition to being a better community partner, Meeks said Chehaw’s future hinges on his ability to help the park become increasingly self-sufficient — less reliant on money from the city of Albany. Although he concedes that the park will likely never be completely independent from the city, he said it has been the park’s mission for some time to become more self-sustaining.
“I really like the outlook for the park,” said Meeks. “Even with the financial struggles that are going to be coming at us, we’ve made some really good decisions and the plans that we have over the next few of years, if we can put them in motion, will be really good for the community, they’ll be well received by the city.
“The city’s under tremendous financial pressure also and we don’t want to be perceived at the city or by people who keep their finger on that part of the city government, as being too much of a leech out here, that type of comment. We want to do our part and help things work for everybody and I think we can.”
Meeks points to a few recent developments as examples of how the park has continued to improve and capture additional revenue streams, improved amenities like the campground, and the play park, as well as adding amenities like the disc golf course, additional biking, hiking, horseback and running trails, and the development of the Creekside Center as an event space.
Meeks points to Creekside as being one of the park’s most important success stories.
“This building here is an example of probably our first major success,” said Meeks. “This building was basically unused and we have turned it around and made it an incredible event opportunity. It has just evolved amazingly, and that’s the kind of thing that we’re looking at.”
Another major development Meeks is excited about seeing come to fruition is the addition of a new campground area in the southwest corner of the park, adjacent to Lake Chehaw. The new campground, which will open sometime in 2016 will feature a full bathhouse, additional RV and primitive camping sites, an additional playground and an improved boat ramp and dock, that Meeks feels will be a popular attraction.
“The campground down on the lake has actually been a project on the shelf for a number of years,” said Meeks. “It required being connected to the city sewer because it’s in the flood plain down there. That has just finally come to fruition and that system is within weeks of being complete, at which point we can start putting that campground together. Every camp ground that’s on a lake anywhere is tremendously popular, so we’re going to capitalize on that.”
In order to make all of these things happen, however, Meeks said that it has been crucial for the park to reconfigure how it operates internally, with a large focus on individual team members taking on more responsibility.
“What we’ve been doing is decentralizing our chain of command, if you will, and making the department heads more autonomous, giving them more responsibility,” said Meeks said. “The departments in the last year and a half have really become strong. The team that we have as a result of that is incredibly good.
“Without that we couldn’t combine these two positions and so the real ability to pull this off it comes out of our ability to be a really strong, efficient-functioning team. And I have to give credit that everybody that’s here is really committed to our mission. It’s not just a group of people that work here and get a check, they all go above and beyond.”
Meeks also credits his leadership style and skill set as being an important part of the transition as well. “My strength, I would have to say, is in problem solving and organization,” said Meeks. “I have a knack for figuring out what the exact problem is and working on a good solution for that instead of working around it. So, efficiency and things like that, is a real strength for me.”
Those strengths were evident to both the Chehaw Park Authority, which oversees the direction of the park, and to Porter, who recommended Meeks as his replacement, some time ago.
“Doug have indicated that he was going to retire sometime in this time frame so we knew that was going to happen and started almost immediately to reorganize ourselves,” explained Meeks. “We have been working the last two years toward more independence at the department head level so there wouldn’t be so much oversight required. So the operations director position could go away and be combined so the executive director would be the operations director as well, so there wouldn’t be two separate positions.”
Now that the leadership transition is complete and Meeks can put all of his attention toward the future of the park, one vision remains sharp in his mind, a vision of the park as a place of respite from the frenetic pace of modern life.
“I think that in these modern, hectic times, we lose our connection to the simpler things in life,” said Meeks. “Coming to the park gives people a chance to relax and take a deep breath. We don’t do that in our everyday lives because we are rushing here and there, and our phone is going off, and we’re taking our kids to their next event. Bringing your family here gives you a chance to take a deep breath and just let a little bit of nature connect back to you. The different opportunities out here all have that in common. No matter what it is you come out here to do you’re going to get a chance to do that, to just get a chance to breath in a little bit of mother nature.”
It would seem that in Chehaw the self-professed vagabond, has finally found the oasis he was searching for, which also happens to have positive implications for the community as well.