In her three years as the Parks and Recreation Department director for Nelson County, Claire Richardson has seen the completion of a roughly 20-year, multi-million dollar project, adult and youth sports leagues and dealt with effects of a global pandemic.
Now, Richardson is leaving her position with the county for a job at Blue Ridge Community College as its Student Activities and Recreation Center Director.
“This is extremely bittersweet for me as I feel there is more to accomplish,” Richardson said. “We’ve made some great strides and progress over the last three years, building on the foundation of those before us.”
In November 2020, Richardson and the parks and recreation department joined in the celebration of the completion of the Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel. For decades Nelson County oversaw the restoration of the centuries-old tunnel, a project that saw heavy delays, in coordination with the Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel Foundation.
Since it reopened, the nearly mile-long tunnel that lies 700 feet below the Blue Ridge Mountains at Rockfish Gap has attracted more than 80,000 visitors. The department is responsible for maintaining the tunnel trail and also undertook a parking lot expansion of the eastern portal.
Richardson said she was particularly proud of the county’s efforts in opening the tunnel.
“Though I was only here for the last three years of the almost twenty-year process, we experienced the success of it’s opening as NCPR maintains the tunnel trail, which has been a huge undertaking ... Kudos to all County staff, and to those who worked tirelessly behind the scenes on the project,” Richardson said in an email.
The department will be developing a parking lot and kayak takeout spot on the Rockfish River in an effort to expand river access, which was one of Richardson’s goals, she said.
In addition to the Rockfish River Access project, the department also has secured funds for a master plan and trail development for Sturt Park and Nature Preserve, Richardson said, potentially adding hiking, bird watching and mountain biking trails as part of the overall plan, she added.
Richardson said from the pandemic, the public learned the value of having safe, outdoor recreation options to explore. She said she believes continuing that mentality should be a priority for the department.
“Parks and Recreation is a necessity for a thriving community. It’s about livability and being socially, mentally, and physically healthy,” Richardson said. “Many knew the value of parks and open space prior to the pandemic, but now it’s even more important to provide citizens with recreational opportunities.”
County Administrator Steve Carter said in a July 23 email to the Nelson County Times he was sad to see Richardson leave.
“She has been a very valuable member of the County’s staff. We wish her all the best,” Carter said.
While the county searches for a new direction, Emily Harper, the department’s previous director, has agreed to fill in on a part-time basis. Carter said the ideal candidate will have previous parks and recreation experience, including administrative experience and a in parks and recreation or closely related field.
Harper served as director of the parks department from 2001 to 2018. She said she accepted the job as interim director because she wanted to help out where she could.
“What I’m trying to do is just to keep things flowing until they hire a new person,” Harper said.
As the department moves forward, Harper urged residents give their input on what programs or activities they would like to see happen in the county.
Richardson, in an email to the Nelson County Times, also thanked her staff for their hard work over the past three years.
“Also, I would be remiss not to mention Petey Vaughan, our recreation technician. He is a hard worker, and is fiercely dedicated to this community,” Richardson said.
With her last day July 28, Richardson said she was encouraged by county officials’ recent support of more recreation opportunities in Nelson, stating she believes the county “definitely needs” a sports field or complex.
“We already have a strong youth soccer program (and basketball) but lack our own space to hold these programs. Fortunately, we are able to use school fields, and other privately owned facilities ... but it’s time we have our own space to elevate and expand our offerings,” Richardson said.
The Nelson County Board of Supervisors during its July 13 meeting voted to proceed with a site evaluation and analysis of properties costing $21,000 for the potential development of a recreation center, fields, swimming pool and associated facilities.
“I’m thrilled at this cohesive effort and hope it becomes a reality,” Richardson said of supervisors’ support of more recreation opportunities in the county. “I have always, and continue to wish nothing but the best for the citizens of Nelson County.”