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Gabe Huffington – Person You Should Know

Gabe Huffington sitting on a park slide

Director of Parks and Recreation, city of Columbia

Job description: I am responsible for the management of all parks and recreation services offered by the city of Columbia. My job duties include supervision of staff, budget management, natural resource management, implementation of the capital improvement program, and long-range planning for the department.

Professional background: When I was 18 years old, I started working at a local golf course each summer so I could play golf every day after work with my best friend Luke. When I graduated college, I took a job in the banking industry but quickly realized that I preferred working outdoors. I worked for a number of years as a golf course superintendent before accepting a position as the Golf and Sports Turf Supervisor with the city of Columbia. After 15 years with the Columbia Parks and Recreation Department, I feel very fortunate to work for the city and am excited to begin my new position as the department director. 

Hometown: Peoria, Illinois

Years lived in Columbia: 10 years

Quote you live by: “May the work I’ve done speak for me.” 

Favorite volunteer/community activity: Cosmo Pancake & Sausage Day! I have been a member of the Columbia Cosmopolitan Luncheon Club for more than six years and am proud of what our club members have accomplished for the community. 

Favorite recent project: Our department has worked closely with the University of Missouri Athletics to develop the cross-country course at Gans Creek Recreation Area into one of the premier running facilities in the United States. The facility hosts the top high school and collegiate runners each fall and has become a key sports tourism facility for Columbia. Our major competitions, such as the MSHSAA State Cross Country Championships, are true team efforts with the majority of our parks and recreation staff helping out during setup and race days. 

A Columbia business person you admire and why: With our collaboration on the development of the agriculture park at Clary-Shy Community Park, I have had the opportunity to get to know Billy Polansky, executive director of the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture (CCUA). Billy and his staff are helping solve key issues for our community related to access to healthy foods and community wellness. 

Why you are passionate about your job: I work with great people that are passionate about parks and recreation. I am thankful for the opportunity to lead our team and enjoy the challenges we face on a daily basis. I also enjoy serving the community and working hard to make Columbia a better place for our citizens. 

Gabe Huffington going down a park slide
Gabe Huffington going down a park slide

Why you are passionate about your company: The Columbia Parks and Trails system is an integral part of our community. We strive to be inclusive for all citizens, protect our natural resources, and be an economic driver for the city. My goal is to make sure our parks, trails, and recreational programs continue to be a reason individuals and families want to live, work, and play in Columbia. 

If you weren’t doing this for a living, you would: I am also an adjunct professor in the Parks, Recreation, Sport and Tourism Department in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Missouri. I enjoy teaching and could definitely see myself as a full-time educator. 

What people should know about your profession: Our staff strives to make sure citizens know that parks and recreation is an essential service of our city. Parks and recreation plays a key role in establishing and maintaining the quality of life for our citizens through quality parks and trails, a robust offering of recreational programs, and community-wide special events. We want to make sure people know that we play a key role in the health and wellness of our citizens. 

Biggest lesson learned in business: Always listen to the people you lead. 

How you want to impact the Columbia community: I want to make sure our department continues to impact the quality of life for every citizen of Columbia and to make sure everyone has access to parks, trails, and recreational programs. 

Greatest strength: My communication skills and competitiveness. 

Greatest weakness: Taking on too much at one time. I have a hard time saying no; I never want to disappoint people.

The next challenge facing your industry: Our biggest challenge right now is recruiting, training, and retaining staff for the department. We have 82 full-time staff members and rely on more than 500 part-time staff to provide our citizens with quality parks, trails, special events, and recreational programming. We have become strategic with recruitment efforts, training programs, and making sure we are offering a work environment that is attractive to all individuals. 

Your next professional goal: The development of the Orr Street Park property is going to be a fantastic addition to Columbia and the North Village Arts District. Our department was recently awarded a $1.25 million grant to transform the former brownfield cleanup site into a green space focused on local arts and music. I am excited to expand my knowledge related to the arts and to provide a space that will be a community showcase.

Family: My wife, Jennifer, and I have two boys, John (14) and Lyle (8), and we have a 1-year-old Goldendoodle named Murphy.

What you do for fun: My wife and I love to go to concerts so we travel quite a bit to catch our favorite band (The Lumineers). My oldest son wants to ride his mountain bike every day of the week so that has become a hobby of mine over the past couple of years. It is a great mix of exercise and access to the outdoors. My youngest son just started to ride as well. Neither of them fell in love with ball sports so I am excited they have found a life-long sport such as mountain biking.

Favorite place in Columbia: The Grindstone Creek Trail

Accomplishment you are most proud of: Columbia’s neighborhood parks. While most citizens and visitors to Columbia notice our major destinations such as the ARC, MKT Trail, and Columbia Sports Fieldhouse, I always tell people that we have the best neighborhood parks in any city in Missouri. 

Most people don’t know: I despise driving and my wife drives the two of us everywhere.

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