It would be difficult to say for certain, but it’s possible Grady Spann is the first director of Arkansas State Parks to be fluent in Portuguese.
As the son of missionaries to Brazil, Spann spoke more Portuguese than English for a time when he was young. He was even assigned to Brazil for part of his military career because of his familiarity with the region. He’s a mild-mannered sort and rarely swears, but when he does it’s in Portuguese while he’s watching a soccer match.
“My parents are the only ones who understand me,” Spann said. “They say that I shouldn’t say those things. And I shouldn’t. But sometimes I get a little carried away.”
A DREAM COME TRUE
Arkansas Executive Director of Parks and Tourism Kane Webb named Spann the director of State Parks in a meeting with staff and Parks, Travel and Tourism Commissioners on Dec. 11. He replaces Greg Butts, who retired Dec. 31 after 25 years as Director of State Parks and 42 years total with the parks system. Spann took the reins Jan. 1.
“This is a dream come true for me,” Spann said. “Several years ago, when I was interviewing for another position, they asked me what my long-term goal was, and I told them I wanted to be the director of Arkansas State Parks. I’m very excited.”
He said his top priority is to connect with the next generation and get young people in the parks, so they can experience the product Arkansas has to offer.
Spann has been with State Parks for 23 years. He formerly served as the Region 5 supervisor, which put him over the five state parks with lodges and full-service restaurants.
The Arkansas State Parks director is responsible for leading the operation of 52 state parks and central office divisions, including administration, planning and development, marketing and revenue, program services and five regional offices. The division has a $126 million annual budget.
When making the announcement, Webb said the decision was difficult because of the solid bench Butts had built throughout the department, but clear. “He has the right experience, the right background, the respect of his co-workers, a vision for the future of the parks and the passion to make it happen,” Webb said. “When I was making the transition to my position, I did a small tour of the state parks. I knew Grady was a possibility for the position at that time. He just got glowing reports from everyone we talked to. The governor has met with him previously and gave his resounding endorsement.”
Spann was the first supervisor of Region 5, a region of parks created in 2012. Up until then, all regions were geographically aligned. The creation of this region pulled together the five lodge parks: Petit Jean, Queen Wilhelmina, Mount Magazine, Lake DeGray and Ozark Folk Center. Officials realized that the parks with lodges had unique challenges and wanted to create consistency across the system, from soap to restaurant food to mattresses.
“It’s allowed us to get cost savings from pooling all our spending, and also guarantees the continuity of quality that guests experience when they come to a park,” Spann said. “We hear all the time how surprised people are that a state park lodge could be so nice.”
Spann served as the superintendent of the Ozark Folk Center State Park from 2005 to 2012, of Historic Washington State Park from 2002 to 2005 and of Parkin Archeological State Park from 1993 to 2002.
A 1995 graduate of the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy, Spann is a certified law-enforcement officer/park ranger. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in parks administration, with a minor in military science from Henderson State University. He served as a military officer for nine years previous to his tenure with Arkansas State Parks.
Butts said he thought Spann was an excellent choice. “He will do a fantastic job,” the outgoing director said. “I’m leaving the department in good hands.”
Jim Shamburger, a member of the Arkansas State Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission, was on the interview committee.
“This was a good move by Webb,” Shamburger said after the announcement. “Grady has always been one of our problem solvers. When we have an issue or problem, we assign him to it. It doesn’t take him very long to figure it out and solve it. That’s what we need.”
Richard Davies, recently retired executive director of Parks and Tourism, was on hand for the announcement. He said he thought Spann would be an excellent choice as well.
“He does not shrink from challenges,” Davies said. “He’s been in the system long enough to know roughly how everything works. Part of the reason he’s successful is that he gets input from the players. He’s what we would call a ‘players coach.’ He listens to all the involved parties. Those can be anyone from a housekeeper or maintenance man to the governor or a congressman.”
Arkansas state parks and museums cover 54,353 acres of forest, wetlands, fish and wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation facilities and unique historic and cultural resources. The system includes 1,100 buildings (including 183 historic structures), six National Historic Landmarks, a National Natural Landmark and 16 sites on the National Register of Historic Places.
The state parks have 1,771 camp sites, 1,050 picnic sites, 208 cabins, four lodges, eight restaurants, 10 marinas and 415 miles of trails. Eight million visitors annually come from all regions of the country. Park staffs provide over 42,000 education programs, activities and special events to more than 700,000 participants each year.
Established in 1927, Arkansas State Parks preserve special places for future generations, provide quality recreation and education opportunities, enhance the state’s economy through tourism, and provide leadership in resource conservation.