Jay Lotthammer, at age 56, is retiring as the City of Eden Prairie’s longtime director of parks and recreation. And so, on Thursday, with the shackles of diplomacy now somewhat loosened, he finally set the record straight on that age-old EP question: Do people move here mostly because of the good parks or mostly because of the good schools?
“Well, I always hear parks AND schools,” he said with a laugh. “And maybe it’s just how it rolls off people’s tongue or the alphabetical order, but I hear parks AND schools. Maybe there’s a semicolon after parks.”
Lotthammer’s final day as parks and recreation director – after 16 years in Eden Prairie in that role, and a 35-year career in the field – will be Oct. 18. A nationwide search for his replacement is underway.
He is Eden Prairie’s third parks and recreation director, following Bob Lambert and Marty Jessen. Lotthammer’s predecessors, here before and during Eden Prairie’s development boom of the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, established a legacy of acquiring land and planning and implementing a nationally recognized system of parks and open spaces. Lotthammer’s contributions have been more along the lines of modernizing Eden Prairie’s largest parks and serving a growing and increasingly diverse population.
“All of our community parks in the last five to seven years, we’ve gone in and done almost a total redo,” he says. “Some of the basic stuff that was put in became 20 and 30 years old, and it was time to replace. So, it was the ability to modernize, which was important because the community has continued to change, and also people’s interests and how they spend their time, what kinds of amenities get put into parks.”
Riley Lake Park is a good example, done in pieces and even involving the acquisition of a few parcels that held older houses. Lotthammer says the popular Adirondack chairs that dot the park help reflect the park’s new theme: The People’s Lake Home.
“Not everybody has a cabin,” he explains. “So how can we give you that same, similar experience of putting your boat in, or kayaking, or being down at the beach, or having that picnic like you might have at a cabin but it’s here in your own backyard, more accessible for everybody?”
Another big accomplishment has been taking the Eden Prairie Community Center from a basic “swim and skate facility” to a full-fledged, membership-based fitness center with more and better amenities like a gymnasium, third ice rink, and aquatics center.
“I was able to use a lot of my previous experience to make that a really good design,” he says.
Says investments pay dividends
Lotthammer didn’t shepherd park-bond referendums, as predecessors did, but worked to secure significant annual funding. From roughly $120 per month in property taxes that owners of an average-value Eden Prairie home pay toward the city’s general fund, almost $40 is for police service, and nearly $33 is for parks and recreation. Lesser amounts of the monthly property-tax bill go to fire services, public works, administration, and community development.
Lotthammer is thankful for the support. “To have the funding to be able to do things well has just paid dividends, and I think it will for a long time,” he says. “And that’s almost all of the projects we’ve been able to do. It hasn’t been, ‘How do you do the bare minimum?’ but ‘How do you do it right and well?’, so it isn’t just the first year that makes people feel it’s a great place to go, but it’s for years to come.”
But, he’s cautious about saying the modernization of community parks has been his greatest accomplishment.
“I always want to be careful that those things you build, the tangible things, sometimes stand out. But I also really value and appreciate the relationships and the people, too,” he says. “And engaging our community, and helping them understand how this park system and our recreation programs can help their quality of life, and how important it is to have that. And we have a community that really does appreciate what we do.
“I really think here, unlike hardly anywhere else, people do recognize what it does for their property values, for their experiences in living here,” Lotthammer says. “The fact that they can, sometimes within a quarter mile, go to a good, quality, safe place … it is as supported as anywhere around.”
The city’s 2023 Quality of Life survey results seem to back that up: 93% of resident respondents rated Eden Prairie parks and open spaces as good or excellent; the rating for paths and walking trails was 90%. Over the last two years, 9 in 10 residents have used community or neighborhood parks.
Especially over the last five to seven years, says Lotthammer, there has been an emphasis from the city council on down to make sure there are parks and recreation events for the entire community, leading to new celebrations like the diversity-themed PeopleFest and changes to the music and food of the Fourth of July celebration to attract a wider swath of Eden Prairie residents.
“The other piece of that is to get out in the community, too, and to reach people that wouldn’t traditionally have been reached,” he says. That means taking recreational equipment and instruction to specific geographic areas with scholarships, grants, or other funding that makes it more affordable to lower-income residents.
“I see so much value in the young kids interacting with our trained and high-quality staff, to have that mentorship, and that really caring adult,” he says.
Standing up for parks
Few things, it seems, raise Lotthammer’s temperature. One thing that might raise it is anyone who mocks the 2017 rating by WalletHub that named Eden Prairie as one of the “Best Beach Towns to Live In” among more than 200 U.S. cities – including cities in Florida and Hawaii – after looking at water quality, accessibility, and other factors.
“A decent amount of people chuckled about that because we were on there with cities in California and Florida – where you would expect to hear about a great beach town,” says Lotthammer. “But I also embraced it at the time.
“Right down here,” he adds, pointing toward Riley Lake Park’s beach, “there’s a great beach for our community. Over at Round Lake, we’ve got a great beach. Three Rivers Park District at Bryant Lake has a great beach. Our city has been able to secure land around lakes that can be open to the public, and that’s not always the case – a lot of cities with lakes, that’s super-valuable lakefront property, and so you have to be able to afford to own it. And it isn’t available to the community.
“So, when I saw that (rating), I thought, ‘Yeah, they have a bigger perspective. They’re getting it right. It doesn’t have to be this big, long, sandy beach on an ocean to be recognized as a great place you can interact with water.’”
More seriously, he’s been discouraged to see parks and recreation subjected to our overall cultural decline in civility.
“There have been people that are more difficult and harder to work with in the last five years than I’ve ever seen,” he says, similar to other service industries, including restaurants. “And that has been a challenge with our staff.
“We’ve had to do more training in the area of de-escalation. I wouldn’t have expected that. But there are people that automatically just go off. It just seems like something lately in the culture, where people feel much more entitled – and maybe it’s an attitude toward government and government employees – but our staff feels it, and especially our front-line people. We do our best to back them up. In some cases we call the police – that didn’t used to happen very often at all.”
It’s one of the reasons he would advise his successor to spend time supporting and cultivating parks and recreation staff.
“There’s a really good group of people in place,” he says. “We are fortunate as a larger city and a larger parks and recreation department to be able to hire people who are experts in their area of interest.” Specialists, in other words.
“But all of us need encouragement, support, and that’s a role I’ve hopefully been able to play. And also to help people continue to learn, grow. That will always be something a parks and recreation director needs to do.”
Closer to the farm
Lotthammer and his wife, Shannon, recently sold their Eden Prairie home and are now living in a Minnetonka apartment. It puts them closer to Jay’s mom, who lives in Osseo, and the couple’s 40-acre farm near Osakis and Alexandria.
He’d been thinking about retirement for a while, and the timing seemed right.
“I spent 19 years in Brooklyn Park, and now over 16 years here,” he says. “And, it just felt like good timing, and thinking about what’s next. I don’t know exactly what that is. Everybody arrives at their decision differently. The hardest part for me, that surprised me, was to stop something, to decide to stop something that you’ve been doing for a long time. That was the hardest part of the decision. And having the faith to say there’s a door you’re going to walk through once you stop something. You don’t exactly know what’s on the other side of that door, but having a belief there’s going to be good things.
“I know I’m going to be able to do more hunting,” he adds. “The ability to spend more time with my family and have some of that flexibility. I love to learn, so some of those other learning avenues that maybe you haven’t had time for, I’m going to be able to do some of that, too. Spend more time up on our land – we have a lot of fruit trees, and shrubs, and plans to put more of those kinds of things in, and just improve the landscape up there, plant more native prairie.”
So, expect Lotthammer to become more of a hunter, farmer, fisherman, and traveler. And perhaps keep the door open to teaching as well.
If the best city in America called and asked him to be its parks and recreation director?
“I would say THIS is the best city,” Lotthammer responds. “That’s seriously one of the harder things about deciding to stop. I know this is an incredible job. If you want to work in parks and recreation, I don’t know if there’s a better place out there. So there’s a part of me, as I was thinking about things, that said, ‘Are you crazy?’
“I can’t think of how I could have had a better career. And I can’t think of a job I would want more than this job.”
Editor’s note: Jay Lotthammer was a board member for Eden Prairie Community Foundation during reporter Mark Weber’s tenure as its executive director, 2013-2022.
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