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Madunich makes sure Spokane’s parks receive quality care

Tony Madunich is the Park Operations manager for Spokane Parks and Recreation. (Colin Mulvany)
Tony Madunich is the Park Operations manager for Spokane Parks and Recreation. (Colin Mulvany)

Hoopfest is expected to draw more than 200,000 players and spectators downtown this weekend, and most will pass through Riverfront Park.

If you’re among them, take a moment to glance down and notice the toll the weekend takes.

Not the scraped knees and wrapped ankles – the lawn worn bare by 400,000 feet, bicycle tires and bouncing balls.

Yet the person whose endless job it is to keep Spokane’s 4,100 acres of parkland pristine looks forward to mass gatherings such as Hoopfest.

All the wear and tear “is a small price to pay for what Hoopfest brings to us,” says Tony Madunich, Spokane Park Operations manager. “Beyond the event itself, the Hoopfest organization has built us two dozen basketball courts, which would easily cost us $60,000 to $80,000 each to install. And once they build them, they maintain them.”

During a recent interview, Madunich discussed the parks’ evolving role in the community, and reluctantly revealed his personal favorite.

S-R: Where were you raised?

Madunich: I grew up in Thief River Falls, Minn., a town of around 10,000. I moved here shortly after graduating from Bemidji State University.

S-R: Did Thief River Falls have parks?

Madunich: Absolutely. The focus there was a little bit different – we had lots more ice rinks than you’d expect here. But parks were an important part of my life as a kid.

S-R: When you first thought about careers, what did you imagine doing?

Madunich: I have a little bit of a mechanical propensity, and I thought about engineering at one point. But I ended up studying business in college.

S-R: What brought you to Spokane?

Madunich: The economy wasn’t particularly good in the mid-1970s, so I volunteered for the VISTA program, the domestic equivalent of the Peace Corps. They asked where I wanted to go. My first choice was Hawaii, of course, but that didn’t work. They sent me to my second choice, the Pacific Northwest. I figured I’d move on when I was done, because I was just rounding out my résumé. But after a year I thought, What’s not to like about Spokane?

S-R: What did you do as a VISTA volunteer?

Madunich: I worked with kids in trouble with the juvenile court system. The city parks and rec department had three youth centers at that time. I worked primarily in the West Central neighborhood.

S-R: How did you get from there to where you are today?

Madunich: I was hired full time in 1977, and spent the next 12 to 15 years working in community centers. Then I ran the city’s swimming pools for a time, and got into adult sports programs. I eventually saw park maintenance as the best fit for me because I like the outdoors and being hands-on. I was able to slide into this department around 1990, and stayed.

S-R: What are your responsibilities?

Madunich: I oversee the upkeep of all our park grounds and facilities, and repair of all our maintenance equipment. We also handle scheduling of parks and permitting of special events, such as Hoopfest. I report directly to the head of City Parks & Recreation, Leroy Eadie, and work very closely with the Park Board, our governing body.

S-R: How much time do you spend outdoors?

Madunich: Not enough. But if the office is driving me crazy, I always have parks I can go look at.

S-R: What role do parks play in the community?

Madunich: They’re a huge quality of life issue and source of pride. They increase property values and provide outlets for recreation and leisure. You can almost gauge the overall health of a community by its parks.

S-R: How has the park system changed since you’ve been involved?

Madunich: Our parks have their roots in the early 1900s, when the Olmstead Brothers (landscape design firm) set up our park system. And if you read their reports from over a century ago, they were right on with the direction and values we needed to instill. So in some ways, the park system hasn’t changed much. But people’s interests have changed. Obviously we didn’t have skateboard parks 100 years ago. Trails are another recent development.

S-R: What else has changed?

Madunich: Playgrounds have evolved for the better. You don’t see things like merry-go-rounds, teeter-totters, real high swings and tall slides. And there’s softer material under the playground equipment.

S-R: Generations ago, did the parks host events comparable to Hoopfest, Pig Out and Bloomsday?

Madunich: Glover Field (in Peaceful Valley) used to be a gathering point for powwows. There were horse races around Corbin Park. And there have always been holiday celebrations in our parks, such as the Fourth of July.

S-R: Are there downsides to hosting major events?

Madunich: Probably yes, in terms of wear. But the incredible upside totally outweighs any downside, so we just consider the extra maintenance as a cost of doing business. The tricky part is when we have events like Hoopfest and the Fourth of July back to back. Then it takes an intense effort to get Riverfront Park back to the condition people have come to expect.

S-R: What’s better about today’s parks?

Madunich: In a lot of ways they’re safer. We have a certified playground safety inspector on staff, better lighting than we did in the past, and separate water systems for drinking fountains and irrigation. The variety of amenities is also greater. We have the Centennial Trail, Ben Burr Trail, Fish Lake Trail and Trolley Trail. Our aquatic centers are like little amusement parks, with all the water slides and spray features.

S-R: What’s worse?

Madunich: Vandalism is one of our ongoing battles. It costs us hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Most of our repair work isn’t because things have worn out – it’s due to them being broken.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Madunich: I feel like I’m the steward and caretaker of some of Spokane’s most valuable and prized possessions, and I’m doing something the community wants and needs.

S-R: What do you like least?

Madunich: Not having the resources to do my job better. Obviously these are tight budget times, but I can walk into any park and see things I’d like for us to do better, such as upgrading some of the older parks’ archaic irrigation systems.

S-R: Do you have to pay for your water?

Madunich: Yes. A lot of people think we get it for free, but we pay the same rate as any residential or commercial customer.

S-R: What do you consider one of your best ideas?

Madunich: Being responsive to trends without losing site of our legacy. I was very involved with constructing the Hillyard Skate Park, which serves a niche of people we struggled for years to reach.

S-R: Who makes a good park maintenance employee?

Madunich: Someone who likes being outside and doing hard, physical labor. And they have to enjoy working with the public.

S-R: What’s the most typical complaint you hear from the public?

Madunich: Probably comments about vandalism. Most people are frustrated by the same things we are. During the summer we have two employees who spend at least three days a week getting rid of graffiti.

S-R: What’s the biggest challenge Spokane’s park system faces?

Madunich: Riverfront Park is coming up on its 40-year anniversary, and it has a lot of old, tired buildings, including facilities that weren’t designed to be used the way they are today. So we’re going through a master planning process for Riverfront Park, and I would guess we’ll present a bond issue in 2014 asking voters to fund renovations and improvements.

S-R: How much do you need?

Madunich: Something in the neighborhood of $50 million.

S-R: Do you have a yard at home?

Madunich: I do.

S-R: How well maintained is it?

Madunich: (Laugh) My yard is fairly minimal. I have a garden, and a secret tomato I grow. But I live on 10 acres, mostly wooded, so the forest around me is my yard. Which is a lot like our park system. Spokane has more than 4,100 acres of parkland, but only about 1,000 of that is developed and mowed.

S-R: Of those 4,100 acres, what’s your favorite spot in the whole system?

Madunich: Wow, there are so many places with something unique to offer. The Indian Canyon and Palisades-Rimrock area is beautiful. Manito Park is an incredible gem. Cannon Hill Park is so peaceful. I also like the Minnehaha area.

S-R: You only get one favorite.

Madunich: I’m greedy. But I’ll say Cliff Park (at Ben Garnett Way and 13th Avenue). I like the way that park feels, and the view from the top.

Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at