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With an eclectic resume which includes private businessman, corporate employee and a stint as Fort Wayne’s first deputy mayor in the Graham Richard administration, Al Moll was already deeply entrenched in the community by 2005. A Kansas native, Moll grew up in the Washington, D.C. area before moving to Fort Wayne in 1984. By the time he became deputy mayor, Moll was already interested in working for Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation, but when a search commenced to find a new director, Moll chose to see where the national search led. When none of the candidates quite filled the bill, Moll decided to throw his hat into the ring and, as a result, has now been director for 10 years.
In that decade, Moll has tapped into his varied professional experiences to bring solid leadership to Fort Wayne Parks & Rec, a department which is not only among the most respected in the city but also the most beloved. Each neighborhood has its own parks, and every citizen seems to be attached to their favorite, most likely the one they frequented growing up or the one where they had their wedding or took their children. It’s a public trust that Moll takes very seriously.
“Of all the things I’ve done professionally over the years, this is by far the most rewarding. It’s a great opportunity, and I feel blessed and honored to have it. There’s an incredible amount of support in this community which treasures its park system. We have both seasoned and young staff members who are all so energetic. Everybody wants to work for the parks system because we love seeing the fruits of our labors.”
That staff includes over 100 full-time, year-round employees, plus an additional 40 to 50 which provide seasonal support. In the summer, those numbers grow to 400 more who help run 1,500 programs to serve the community. Having just celebrated the department’s 110th anniversary with a community party at Headwaters Park, Moll says that support from not only the mayor’s administration, but from the citizens of Fort Wayne makes the continued growth and expansion possible.
“Some people don’t realize that Headwaters Park and the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo are part of Fort Wayne Parks & Rec. We let the Zoological Society run the zoo, and I know enough to just stay out of Jim Anderson’s way because they do a great job there. But they’re part of our system, and they’re an example of how, while we’re a government entity, most of our programs are self-sustaining. We also have a Park Foundation which has set up endowments for some of our parks. Freimann Square, for example, is completely endowed, so all the money to maintain it comes from that endowment. Headwaters Park, the Courthouse Green and Lakeside also have endowments.”
Recent upgrades to McMillan Park, with a new community center which repurposes the old ice rink, has provided basketball, soccer and technology programs, all designed to fill a void and serve the underserved in our community. A new playground at Kreager Park, which includes a splash pad, is “Disney-like” in its offerings, says Moll. He also notes that Foster Park is considered “The People’s Park,” one of the crowning jewels in the city.
“We try to maintain the parks and offer programs that get kids outside to enjoy nature,” says Moll. “It’s a little harder to do these days, but we know it’s better for their health if they have reasons to go outside. We try to keep our programs reasonably priced which attracts more people, but these programs have a strong tradition in this community.”
One of the biggest changes to the parks system during Moll’s era has been the explosive growth of the Foellinger Theatre in the last several years. From the time he took the position as director, he saw the theatre’s potential and sought to do something about it.
“I really drove that expansion. When I took the job in 2005, there were 10 to 15 free events in the theatre each year, and attendance at those was next to nothing. It was a great place to have free movies and free concerts, and we still offer all of that. But sometime around 2006 or 2007, we booked the Grass Roots to play and charged maybe $10 admission. Maybe not even that.
“We were just looking to see what would happen if we had concerts in there, and the show sold out. So we started bringing in more acts like Grand Funk Railroad and some cover bands. Hotel California has been coming here every year and will be back again next year for its seventh consecutive time. Each year when they come they draw a bigger crowd.”
As the concert schedule at Foellinger continued to grow, Moll decided to take a chance and book a band who cost a little more, whose ticket price was a little higher, just to see what might be possible.
“Our turning point in 2012 was when we brought in Huey Lewis & the News. We’d already had some big names come in – we’d had groups like Three Dog Night the year before – but we took a chance with some bigger, more expensive names, and the risk paid off. So the following year, we brought in Chicago, America, Little River Band, Kansas, and pretty soon, promoters were contacting us, trying to book shows here.
“Now we’re working with Pacific Coast Concerts, and we have some of the biggest lineups ever. When our summer series is announced, it’s a big community event. This past year we crashed the city’s website because as soon as the tickets went on sale, there was such a high volume trying to register on the site.”
Aiming for the baby boomers, and now looking to the next generations, Moll has perfectly targeted the audience for the summer concerts, and ticket and concession revenues not only pay for the show but provide additional monies for upgrades to the theater, which has recently included a new rigging system and a likely upgrade of an already elaborate sound system. Recent renovations to the stage, which no longer includes a cover to a defunct orchestra pit, allowed for additional seating closer to the stage.
“We sought input from the bands that played here, and they wanted less distance between them and the audience,” says Moll. “So now we have additional seats, which provide more revenue and allow for the bands and the audiences to be closer. The bands that play here tell other bands what a great experience they have, and that helps spread the word. Mike Love of the Beach Boys said what a great experience they had in Fort Wayne last year, which is why they came back again this year. He’s been all over the world, and he has great things to say about playing at the Foellinger.”
Although 2015 has been a mixed bag – Moll says the success of the concert series built him up while flooding and fallen trees brought him back down to earth – he is happy with the growth he’s seen during his tenure and looks forward to continuing in the role.
“Although budgets are strained at times, we’re still able to take care of the community, and these concerts are the icing on the cake. It’s great when people come up and say you’re doing a great job, but it’s really about so much more than me. It’s a pleasure serving the public and serving this park system.”