Retiring official kept city parks alive


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After the Environmental Center at Frick Park burned down in 2002, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy president and CEO Meg Cheever met with a city official, Duane Ashley, to make plans for rebuilding.

With blueprints in hand and partial funding assembled, the conservancy and the city will break ground on the first phase of a new $15 million center next year. Ms. Cheever credited Mr. Ashley, who will retire at the end of this year from his post as city operations director, with keeping the participants focused and the project moving for more than a decade.

"I just will be forever grateful to him for that vision and leadership," Ms. Cheever said.

From the environmental center to the Mellon Park tennis bubble, from the Schenley Oval Sportsplex to the Bud Harris Cycling Track along Washington Boulevard, and from spray parks to revamped senior centers, Mr. Ashley, 61, has had a hand in developing, enhancing and sustaining many of the city's signature amenities.

Friends said he worked quietly, doggedly and apolitically in the sometimes-toxic environment of a city hall run by elected officials who often couldn't get along with one another.

"Duane is about the least political person I've seen through the three administrations I've worked with -- it never mattered how you voted on the last bill or who you supported in the last election," said city Councilman-elect Dan Gilman, chief of staff to Councilman Bill Peduto for eight years. Mr. Peduto becomes mayor in January, and Mr. Gilman is taking his council seat.

Often, in recent years, Mr. Peduto accused his nemesis, outgoing Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, and department heads of playing political games. But he never criticized Mr. Ashley, who helped to bring the popular tennis bubble to Mr. Peduto's district in 2003.

In what may have been the secret to his longevity, Mr. Ashley built relationships with individuals, not factions, and supporters said he never forgot that his chief loyalty had to be to the people of Pittsburgh.

"We've done a lot," Mr. Ashley said in a farewell appearance before council. "The best is yet to come. There's so much we can do as a city, jointly, if we can just, you know, dismiss the rancor and divisiveness ..."

Mr. Ashley, an Overbrook resident who makes $106,000 a year, declined to be interviewed for this story. "He's not one to talk too much about himself," mayoral spokeswoman Marissa Doyle said in an email.

During his council appearance, co-workers gave Mr. Ashley a standing ovation. Council members gushed with praise: R. Daniel Lavelle called him the "silent mayor;" Corey O'Connor said Mr. Ashley could drive around the city to measure his legacy in senior centers and athletic fields; Theresa Kail-Smith said his reputation transcended the walls of city government.

As a community activist many years ago, Ms. Kail-Smith recalled, she wanted the city's help with an athletic association matter but found herself trapped in a game of pickle at city hall. She said somebody told her, "You have to talk to Duane Ashley because he'll just get it done."

He spent most of his 37-year career in Citiparks, rising through the ranks to become director in 1999, the post he held when the Environmental Center burned.

In subsequent years, Ms. Cheever said, Mr. Ashley helped a planning team evaluate amenities at environmental centers in other cities and develop an "amazing and wonderful" concept for a new one here. Mr. Ashley is a city representative on the board of the public-private conservancy.

Twice, Mr. Ashley survived the bureaucratic purges that occur when new mayors take office.

In 2006, Mayor Bob O'Connor moved him out of Citiparks and appointed him the city's first director of community initiatives.

Three years later, Mr. Ravenstahl promoted him to operations director, giving him oversight of Citiparks, public works, information systems, Equal Opportunity Review Commission and Department of Personnel and Civil Service. The position also gave him oversight of the city housing authority, parking authority and Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority.

Mr. Peduto invited department heads to apply for positions in his administration, but Mr. Peduto's spokeswoman, Sonya Toler, said she believed Mr. Ashley previously had decided to retire. Mr. Peduto has named Guy Costa, the city's former public works director, to succeed Mr. Ashley with the new title "chief operations officer."

Mr. Ashley was only about a month into his operations job when a February 2010 blizzard paralyzed the city. While the public works department received many complaints about its handling of the blizzard, Mr. Ashley was not criticized.

In building a recreation infrastructure, Mr. Ashley had to work around the city's financial crisis and the spending restrictions that came with Act 47 distressed status.

In 2003, then-Mayor Tom Murphy closed swimming pools and recreation centers citywide to save money. Mr. Ravenstahl, who took office upon Mr. O'Connor's death in 2006, imposed about five years of pay-as-you-go capital spending while paying down about $250 million in debt.

Despite the funding challenges, the city has reopened some pools, established its first five spray parks, launched a bike-share program, renovated the South Side Market House, other senior centers and playgrounds and built a $2.3 million soccer complex with artificial turf and a walking/jogging track in Riverview Park.

City Controller Michael Lamb said Mr. Ashley helped to keep recreation and healthy living atop the city's list of priorities during the financial crunch. Creative financing -- such as user fees for some programs and a shift from pools to less-costly spray parks -- has helped. The conservancy also has helped by raising millions for the biggest parks, which a 1999 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story described as "tattered."

A Dec. 7 dedication of the soccer field was postponed because of snow. That disappointed council President Darlene Harris, who credited Mr. Ashley for moving the project forward and hoped to dedicate the field before he retired.

"There are employees, and then there are people like Duane, and they're hard to come by," Ms. Harris said.

Joe Smydo: jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.


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