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APACHE JUNCTION – There wasn’t a blade of grass in the name of Apache Junction Parks and Recreation, let alone a ball court or a piece of playground equipment. The city itself was still in its infancy – just a few employees, some trailers that doubled as offices and a used dump truck.
That is what Jeff Bell walked into at age 23. Three and a-half decades later, he can look back at having developed more than 2,000 acres of park and open space in a thriving operation that employs more than 100 full and part-time staff, has hundreds of volunteers and serves a community of tens of thousands, winning accolades from peers and citizens alike over the timespan.
The first Parks and Recreation director in city history retired earlier this year after 35 years of building a department from scratch.
“Jeff started with nothing and ended up with beautiful parks, a sparkling Multigenerational Center, and a tremendous staff to boot,” said Apache Junction Mayor John Insalaco. “It is nothing short of miraculous to see what Jeff has done since arriving in 1980.”
That year, a few weeks before Ronald Reagan would be elected president, Bell took the position of “community services coordinator” since there wasn’t a Parks department yet. Ground had just been broken on ball fields and tennis courts near Apache Junction High School. Bell began his job working with the school district to develop agreements for joint use facilities. That led to many projects, including the aquatic center at what has become Superstition Shadows Park.
Of course, Bell was destined for a career in recreation. Growing up in Casa Grande, he started volunteering with that city’s parks department before he was a teen-ager. He worked there through his school years and even after he went to Arizona State University, where he earned a degree in recreation management.
“For several years in our organization, Jeff was known as ‘Senor SOAR’ (Service Over and Above the Rest),” city manager Bryant Powell noted. “Jeff was our senior staff lead on this work. He embodied the idea. This was a several year assignment where Jeff took on extra duties to provide expertise to many city teams, helping them review and implement city staff customer service and process improvement projects.”
It started with Veterans Memorial Park on the city hall complex and now encompasses a system of parks, facilities and awards that rival any city. Bell oversaw the first programs, including a senior softball league that began right after he started to the comprehensive offerings of today. It was under Bell’s vision and leadership that Prospector Park was developed and, of course, the Multigenerational Center.
“Two things stick with me about Jeff,” said Klindt Breckenridge, president of Breckenridge Group, which designed the Multigenerational Center. “In designing the facility, Jeff brought up the idea of ‘connections’ – more than physical connections; but how the center would connect with all members of the Apache Junction community, seniors; young families; millennials; longtime residents and newcomers; fitness fans and leisure pursuits – making the Multigenerational Center a welcoming place for everyone.”
Recreation Management magazine selected the center for its Innovative Architecture and Design Award in 2006 and Athletic Business subsequently featured the project in its publication.
But the list goes on – the Little League Park, Superstition Shadows Park and Aquatics Center which includes the skate park, Silly Mountain Park, and the Focal Point, all came to be over his time. Remarkably, Bell worked with the school district and the federal Bureau of Land Management to acquire the trails and open space, some of which became developed parks.
The agreement with the Bureau of Land Management led to what is now Prospector Park and the Rodeo Grounds, the Sheep Drive Trail (city multi-use trail) which extends for more than eight miles as well as the trails up Silly Mountain. The last 35 years also have included community partners, like the Superstition Area Land Trust and the Association for the Development of a Better Environment.
Acknowledgements abound over the years, from the Arizona Parks and Recreation Association and others. In 2004, the state association named Superstition Shadows Park the “Outstanding Facility for a community with a population under 60,000,” and the Arizona Department of Commerce and the Governor’s Office gave Parks an award for “Excellence in Rural Development” for Superstition Shadows Park.
In 2008, the Phoenix New Times honored Lost Dutchman Days with their award for “Best Place to See a Homegrown Rodeo.”
Bell also built a staff that is the envy of the region. Many have been acknowledged by the city and the Arizona Parks and Recreation Association. One of his protégés, Liz Langenbach, became the second Parks director in city history after Bell’s retirement.
Bell’s efforts continued right up to early this year in initial plans for the first downtown park, off North Apache Trail. The grass hasn’t even been planted yet – much like how Bell arrived in Apache Junction more than 35 years ago.
Awards earned while Jeff Bell was director
2013 – The Downtown Holiday Program and Light Parade is recognized by Arizona Parks & Recreation Association (APRA) as Outstanding Community Event
2012 – The monthly Fit Families Program was recognized as Outstanding Educational Program of the Year by APRA
2011 – East Valley Tribune names Multigenerational Center “Best City Rec Center” In Best of East Valley 2011 Reader’s Poll
2011 – Parks and Recreation Department and Superstition Area Land Trust are awarded Partnership Award by APRA for the Silly Mountain Park Project Collaboration
2008 – Fourth of July “Locals Only” skate competition selected as
Outstanding Sporting Event by APRA; Parks recognized by the Arizona chapter of American Society for Landscape Architects for Outstanding Maintenance Practice at City Hall
2008 – Phoenix New Times names Lost Dutchman Days the “Best Place to see a Homegrown Rodeo.”
2006 – Multigenerational Center receives Outstanding Facility Award from APRA; center recognized by “Recreation Management” magazine with Innovative Architecture and Design Award.
2005 – Superstition Shadows Park receives Outstanding Facility Award from APRA.
2004 – Superstition Shadows Park receives “Governor’s Excellence in Rural Development” Award in Parks and Recreation category from the Arizona Department of Commerce.
1997 – Focal Point wins “Arizona Main Street Award for Best Public Improvement”
Nestled at the foot of the Superstition Mountains, Apache Junction is strategically positioned as the eastern gateway into the Greater Phoenix metro area (Valley of the Sun) and the western entry to the Tonto National Forest’s recreation venues. The surrounding geography and western atmosphere draw more than half a million visitors through the city annually. From the mysterious stories of hidden treasures to the people who follow them, Apache Junction is surrounded by legends.