What better place to sit down with the newly-named General Manager of the El Dorado Hills Community Services District than a bale of hay in Serrano’s Village Green during “Pirates at the Library,” one of many high-profile kids’ events in El Dorado Hills every summer, several of which are put on by the organization he’ll take the reins of on Sept. 10.
The new GM is suitably impressed, and starts to discuss the value of “edutainment” attractions, something he learned from Walt Disney’s personal landscape architect and theme park designer Scott Girard.
He’s interrupted by the protestations of a kindergarten-age buccaneer, nerf-saber in hand and eye patch in place, who bellows “You’ll walk the plank for this!” and stomps by with his haggard mother in pursuit.
The impromptu theater puts a smile to the face of Dennis, 54, whose 30-plus years in the parks and recreation field, most recently as director of operations in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park have also turned a few frowns upside down.
Dennis spent the majority of his career managing non-profit “public gardens,” consistently widening their appeal, often with attractions and events like Pirates at the Library, often at a steeper door charge than the suggested $1 donation for Saturday’s Pirate experience.
As a result, he’s left each non-profit stronger financially, with endowments and master plans in place, often expanding or enhancing facilities along the way.
He graduated from Ohio State at Columbus in 1980 with a degree in landscape architecture, and was working for the city by his junior year. His big break occurred when Columbus was selected as the site of nation’s first international garden festival.
Held in 1992 at a cost of $95 million, the “Ameriflora” exhibit attracted 5.5 million visitors, requiring a massive makeover of historical Franklin Park and its centerpiece 1895 conservatory.
Disney’s “edutainer” Girard was brought in and schooled the young landscape architect in “designing spaces for people,” he said.
When the exhibit closed the city formed a joint recreation district and hired Dennis to run it under an 18-member board. “That’s what got me off the drafting board,” he said.
He hosted a string of creative special exhibits and attractions over the ensuing years, including the largest temporary butterfly exhibit in the world, a six-week show “that had lines around the park to get in,” he recalled.
Fast forward to 2002. San Francisco hires him to manage two major attractions in Golden Gate Park, the 55-acre Botanical Gardens, and the landmark 1879 Conservatory of Flowers, the oldest wood and glass greenhouse in North America and first structure built in the park.
Part of the challenge, he said, was managing a blended team of well-compensated city employees and not-for-profit partners that earn far less, or nothing at all, as volunteers.
Each attraction was run “hand to mouth” when he arrived, and consequently was subject to dramatic financial crises. In what he modestly described as an “entrepreneurial bend” he immediately brought in more and better exhibitions.
The revenue impact rippled from admission through food, beverage and facility rentals. Operations stabilized. Contingency and deferred maintenance accounts were funded.
Dennis’s strong resume and his ascent to leadership in San Francisco beg the question “Is he overqualified?”
He doesn’t see it that way. He said he enjoyed developing strategic plans and facilities, but missed working directly with the public.
“I would never take on a new leadership role if I didn’t, in my heart, feel I could make a difference, and I see lots of opportunities here,” he said.
Board President Tony Rogozinski said he asked the new GM if he’d get bored in El Dorado Hills, and was eventually convinced that the product of Ohio and Michigan was at a point in life where he was ready for a fresh start with new challenges, away from the politics and congestion of San Francisco.
Dennis professed a passion for youth sports and said he coached his son through a successful Little League career, and continued to coach even after his kids left for college.
His son currently plays short stop at the University of Michigan and was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays, but elected to stay in school. His daughter studies business at Baker College in Michigan.
“Putting the fiscal house in order” has been the hallmark of his leadership roles, he said, “creating surpluses while investing in facilities and putting money aside to maintain them,” all goals of his new role in El Dorado Hills, albeit on a smaller scale.
The skills required to run a successful nonprofit: fundraising, public speaking, budget management, team building and volunteer recruitment, are what the CSD Directors said they wanted in a GM, he said, “So it looks like a good fit and I can’t wait to dig in.”
Rogozinski cited Dennis’s success in volunteerism as a prime indicator of his leadership. Other than isolated church and scouting projects, the district has failed to deliver on a long-standing goal of broad-based volunteerism.
More than any other candidate, Dennis engaged residents and district employees as part of his due diligence on El Dorado Hills. “He spent a couple days here and really made an effort to get to know the place,” said Rogozinski.
With two director positions still open, Dennis will get to shape the organization he inherits, starting on Sept. 10.
Director Bill Vandegrift cast the lone nay vote on Dennis’s contract, citing concerns with the process and the salary. Dennis starts at $142,500, whereas John Skeel made $126,000.
San Francisco, with its own “politics, bureaucracy, stakeholders and special interests,” surrounding every project, was a great training ground for dealing with controversial projects and people, said Dennis, citing the example of soccer fields.
“Not to downplay the issues in El Dorado Hills, but I’m pretty well-seasoned on the kinds of problems that come up,” he said. “It takes diplomacy. I had to learn to be a good listener, and to navigate to best solutions, knowing that everyone won’t be satisfied.”