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Taking parks to new heights: New director settles in at Pendleton

After college basketball career at OSU, Liam Hughes started career in recreation management
Antonio Sierra

East Oregonian

Published on February 6, 2018 12:01AM

Last changed on February 6, 2018 9:02PM

Pendleton Parks and Recreation director Liam Hughes gestures with his hand while parks lead Shane Thomas sets the measuring mechanism on a laser leveling device while parks manager Jeff Hamilton looks on Tuesday at Aldrich Park in Pendleton. Hughes was touring the city’s parks Tuesday and discussing updates that are needed to the facilities.

Staff photo by E.J. Harris

Pendleton Parks and Recreation director Liam Hughes gestures with his hand while parks lead Shane Thomas sets the measuring mechanism on a laser leveling device while parks manager Jeff Hamilton looks on Tuesday at Aldrich Park in Pendleton. Hughes was touring the city’s parks Tuesday and discussing updates that are needed to the facilities.

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Pendleton Parks and Recreation director Liam Hughes looks around while taking a tour of Sherwood Park with Shane Thomas and Jeff Hamilton on Tuesday in Pendleton.

Staff photo by E.J. Harris

Pendleton Parks and Recreation director Liam Hughes looks around while taking a tour of Sherwood Park with Shane Thomas and Jeff Hamilton on Tuesday in Pendleton.

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There are a lot of tall tales surrounding Liam Hughes, and at least one of them is true.

To contain his 7-foot-2-inch frame, the Englishman bought an eight-foot-long mattress, but he still needed a bed frame. Using his amateur carpentry skills, Hughes lined his lengthy mattress with a frame made from logs.

“All my friends hate me when they have to help me move it,” said Hughes, who has since retired the bed from personal use.

Just a few days into his new job as the director of the Pendleton Parks and Recreation Department, Hughes ducked into his office and stretched his legs out as he settled in for an interview Monday.

The soft-spoken Hughes, 34, recounted his journey from small-town England to the head of one of Eastern Oregon’s most extensive municipal park systems.

Hughes grew up in Hullbridge, a village in the southwestern county of Essex. Situated near the River Crouch, the British Office for National Statistics counted 6,527 people in its 2011 census.

Hughes’ high school classmate Sarah Hopkins-Chery described the villages in that area of the country as being very similar, each containing a pub, a convenience store and few other amenities in their small boundaries.

She remembered Hughes as being laid-back while remaining passionate about sports, eventually gravitating toward basketball.

“Being 7-2, everybody knew who he was,” said Hopkins-Chery.

Both Hughes and Hopkins-Chery ended up pursuing their basketball dreams in the United States, with Hughes moving to Modesto, California in 2000 while still in high school.

Hughes was able to advance his basketball career at Oregon State University, playing there for four years before using an extra year of eligibility to play for Western Oregon University while in search for more minutes.

After leaving WOU, Hughes found himself contemplating his future while recovering from a knee injury.

While he could further his basketball career by playing in Europe, Hughes said it would leave him without a viable career path once those opportunities dried up.

Having worked for Camp Cascade Conference & Retreat Center during his college years, Hughes decided to look for jobs in parks and recreation.

Hughes got his first chance with the Newport Parks and Recreation Department in 2008.

As the department’s sports coordinator, Hughes gained experience in planning and coordinating events, a feature that would quickly become his calling card.

Jim Protiva, Newport’s parks and recreation director, said Hughes was “exceedingly sports minded” with the planning ability to see things through.

“Liam’s a winner,” he said.

Protiva said two events he spearheaded while in Newport — the Coast Hills Classic, a mountain bike race, and the Buccaneer Rampage, a mud obstacle course — are still going strong today.

After several years in Newport, Hughes said he wanted to find a job where he could implement his vision rather than move into middle management at a bigger agency.

He found that opportunity at the Sisters Parks & Recreation District, where he started serving as executive director in 2013.

During his tenure, Hughes worked with Kris Harwell, the district’s financial and project coordinator, who praised Hughes for his motivational skills and enthusiasm.

Harwell highlighted events that were created under Hughes’ watch, like the Great Northwest Sports Camp, a combination outdoor-sports camp, and the Sisters Homebrew Festival.

While he achieved success in Sisters, Hughes chose to apply to the open Pendleton position last year because of its wealth of land and facilities. With the recent opening of a bike park, Hughes said the Sisters district didn’t have any other land it could develop and had to contend with municipal priorities when using city facilities for events.

City Manager Robb Corbett said the city received applications from a dozen qualified applicants from across the country and would have been comfortable choosing any of the four finalists who interviewed for the job.

But what stuck out to Corbett was Hughes’ event coordination ability. While the city has pursued economic development opportunities through the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport and the Pendleton Convention Center, Corbett said a parks and recreation department that brought more people to town through new events could be a real asset.

After playing college basketball in Missouri, Hopkins-Chery, Hughes’ high school classmate, gravitated toward coaching. She’s now the head women’s basketball coach at the University of California, Merced, a 45-minute drive from the high school where Hughes made his American debut.

Hopkins-Chery said she wasn’t surprised that Hughes had achieved success so quickly in parks and recreation, a tribute to work ethic he demonstrated back in England.

Having started his job on Feb. 1, Hughes said he’s spending his first days meeting with staff and learning about new parks.

Hughes oversees a combined $2.7 million budget from the general fund and approximately 29 positions. In addition to 22 parks, the department is responsible for operating and maintaining the Pendleton Recreation Center, the Pendleton Aquatic Center and Olney Cemetery.

Hughes said he’s particularly excited about the new playgrounds at Aldrich Park, Sherwood Park and May Park.

Tuesday afternoon, Hughes went out with park staff to Aldrich and Sherwood parks to discuss logistics.

At Sherwood, Hughes made a verbal note as the shelter started to groan under the wind.

“I’m sure the neighbors will complain if we don’t come fix it,” he said.

While Hughes is new to town, his predecessor, Donnie Cook, will be able to lend his institutional knowledge to parks and rec.

After retiring in January, Cook is remaining with the city as a part-time facilities worker.

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Contact Antonio Sierra at asierra@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0836.



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