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New Burdette Park Director: 'I don't work at a bank or a law office for a reason.'

Zachary Wathen started Aug. 1 as director of ‘crown jewel’ of Vanderburgh County after serving as assistant director since 2017

It’s a rainy day at Burdette Park in Evansville. The Pool is closed, and no one is out at the USI Burdette Park Trail. This trail is new director Zach Wathen’s favorite part of the 170-acre facility.

“It's just, it's, it's so unique, and it's paved, you can drive it, you can't drive a car down it, but if you do have an emergency situation, you know, we can get an ambulance to you,” he said.

We’re walking down the smooth asphalt pathway. It has a blue line down the middle, it’s ADA accessible, tree-flanked with well-built retaining walls.

“So I mean, there's nothing else like it.… I've been all over the country and I've never seen anything close to this nice.”

Wathen also likes the pool and Discovery Lodge. Rainy days like today let him do some odd jobs — like coming up with a floor plan for an upcoming wedding to be held at the lodge. Which is what he was doing before his interview.

He’s only been the director officially since August 1, as the county is expecting another record season of ticket sales.

“I'm directing something that's been called the ‘crown jewel of Evansville.’ But I have got support and I think that's what makes the job less stressful. We find problems; we fix them. We need something, we get it and we all just work together.”

Aside from his five years of experience as assistant director, he said ‘people skills’ are what make him good at this job.

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Tim Jagielo
Wathen stands at a bend in the USI-Burdette Park Trail. As a University of Southern Indiana graduate, it's his favorite feature of the park.

“And I try to be a very outside the box thinker, if nothing else,” he said. I don't work at a bank or a law office for a reason. I get to be a little more free-minded and goofy with my ideas, because I do work in a park. And that is what people want.”

One idea was to bring shark movies like "Jaws" to their aquatic center. A large monkey costume head sits in his office along with a stuffed shark wearing glasses with some awards and photos of staff members.

The other wall is covered with "thank-you" notes.

“You know, and this is again, why I'm out here,” he said. “Some of this is from kids. Some of these are just from organizations, but we try to help out any way we can. And give some of these kids obviously are in tough situations.”

His job is mainly overseeing daily operations and the budget — the newest part of his job as director.

“I was always kind of involved in operations,” Wathen said. “But the thing I've got to keep doing that I really enjoy is, you know, some of the cool stuff and the stuff actually face to face with the general public. That's why I'm out here. That's why I'm doing this.”

He said the county commissioners supported him in his promotion, and they’ve supported the park with funds for pool lockers, new vehicles, kids water slide, land base agreements for BMX and baseball fields.

He said the variety of tasks and challenges might surprise people.

“You really have to expect anything,” he said. “You might have a serious medical emergency somewhere in the park. And then five minutes later, you might be trying to accommodate a little girl's birthday party. So it's such a variety of things that happen out here.”

Upcoming projects include updating an outdated pool. They’re also thinking about additional water features and rental shelters. The park currently has 19 day shelters for rent, and according to Wathen, there’s something for everyone out here.

“We've got six overnight cabins for three months out of the year. We've got the pool open. When the pool closes. We've still got fishing basketball, the USI Burdette Park Trail, we've got 1,000 places you can get married out here.”

While he’s worked for parks most of his adult life, Wathen actually started off studying sports journalism, until he started working maintenance at a park and liked it.

“You get to be with wilderness all day. To get to be outside all day, I definitely knew I was not going to ever work in anything with like a suit and tie,” Wathen said.  “I think the best part is I get to meet a lot of cool people.”