Providence Parks Superintendent Steps Down

After almost three decades, Bob McMahon is set to retire this month

East Side Monthly Magazine ·

"Parks make a City work,” suggests Bob McMahon. And who should know better than our outgoing Superintendent of Public Parks, who will be retiring after almost three decades of creating and maintaining Providence’s well-regarded, citywide urban landscape. Yet he’s done his work quietly and almost unnoticed, which is just the way he likes it.

Before being named superintendent in 2008, McMahon was hired as deputy superintendent beginning in 1986 and has been involved in every aspect of the department ever since. Ironically, since his promotion, the deputy position has been defunded.

During his stellar 29-year career, he served six mayors, (Paolino, Cianci, Lombardi, Cicilline, Tavares and Elorza). He candidly and humorously acknowledges that “they each had their own styles.” He is, of course, too much of a gentleman to comment further, but he certainly has stories.

McMahon’s thoughtful and humble style comes through when asked about his greatest accomplishments. After trying to avoid the question, he finally acknowledges the great successes of the 1990s, with the creation of the new zoo, the skating center downtown, the river walk, Waterplace Park and the botanical center, giving credit to his former boss, Nancy Derrig, and various leaders.

Truth be told, it was McMahon’s ability to coordinate all of these projects, while still managing the department’s daily operations, that made this department rather unique. He possesses an unusual common-sense nuts and bolts ability to figure out a way to get proj- ects done on time and on budget. In addition to all of the major projects, he managed the design and construction of more than 70 neighborhood park improvement projects.

“Probably my greatest accomplishment,” he suggests when pressed, “is the fact that we’ve been able to maintain an acceptable level of service while losing 30% of our staff. We’ve had to do a lot more with much less,” he explains. “We’ve been fortunate that the revenue from a management deal that we made a long time ago on Triggs Memorial Golf Course has enabled us to fund improvements in neighborhood parks and sup- plement capital improvements.”

“Through the Partners for Providence Parks, we’ve still been able to improve neighborhood parks throughout the city,” McMahon continues. “We’ve added 11 water splash parks, nine community gardens and 25 walking tracks. And, we have 40 groups that have taken stewardship of their neighborhood parks. This is critical because our maintenance crews have to deal with some parks that are much more heavily used and require more attention so it’s a delicate balance.”

McMahon plans to leave at the end of January and there is a search committee that is looking for a replacement. “Hopefully, they will find someone very quickly who can ‘shadow’ Bob,” adds incoming City Council President Luis Aponte. “He’s been a great leader, advocate and ‘do-er’ for almost three decades and his knowledge will be greatly missed.”

Under McMahon’s watch on the East Side, we’ve seen the incredibly successful farmers market now a seasonal resident of the much improved Lippitt Park at the end of the Boulevard, a Flea Market on South Water Street, an off leash dog park, a boat ramp on Transit at Gano and improvements in our six East Side parks. “The growth of the farmer’s market is particularly remarkable to me,” he notes. “I don’t think that anyone anticipated how great this would become.”

So, what’s ahead in retirement? “I’m going to take a few months off. I like to write and that’s a possibility, but right now, I’m just going to relax.”

The Providence Parks Department has around an $8,000,000 annual budget and employs around 170 people, maintains all of the city’s 100 neighborhood parks, including Roger Williams Park, handles forestry operations throughout the City, runs the Zoo, the Museum of Natural History, the skating center, Botanical Center, soccer and Little League fields, the North Burial Ground, the Casino and Triggs Memorial Golf Course.

Prior to joining the Parks Department, Bob served for four years as the first executive director for Keep Providence Beautiful. Bob is a graduate of Brown University and has a masters degree in planning from the University of Rhode Island. He and his wife, Pam, and their sons James and Robert live in Providence.


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