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Parks director leaving for another challenge

When Chuck Nelson started as Pasco County's parks and recreation director in April 1973, his staff consisted of two part-time custodians. In several weeks, when Nelson moves to take a similar job with Brevard County, he will leave a much larger and more sophisticated operation.

In Nelson's 17 years with Pasco, the county's parks and recreation department has grown to about 130 employees. The county's budget for the 1990-91 fiscal year includes about 48 more parks positions.

As the first parks director in Pasco, Nelson recalls the days when the county's parks system consisted of three modest, even primitive, areas at Green Key, Hudson Beach and Moon Lake.

Back then, Hudson Beach "was a single lot," Nelson said Monday. "It had a restroom that was just unbelievable and shelters that were even worse. There was a hole in one of the (shelter's) aluminum roofs that was big enough to drop a bowling ball through."

Today Hudson Beach has undergone a $733,000 expansion, and it draws hundreds of visitors on sunny days. Pasco operates 25 parks. Several more are being planned or are under construction. The Agri-Timber wilderness park in East Pasco is scheduled to open in December, and a neighborhood park in Lacoochee is scheduled to open in January.

"I think the county in general, from when I first started to today, has matured," Nelson said. "There have been a lot of improvements made in county government, and I'm proud to be a part of that."

Most of the more recent improvements to Pasco's parks result from a referendum in November 1986, when voters decided to impose a special property tax and use the revenue to repay $13-million in parks improvement bonds.

County officials say they are far enough into the parks improvement program that Nelson's departure should not create a problem.

"We shouldn't see any slowdowns in what we're doing," County Administrator John Gallagher said.

Nelson leaves his job with Pasco on Nov. 2 and starts in Brevard, where he was chosen from among more than 50 other applicants, on Nov. 13.

"Obviously, he has a very stable employment record," Brevard County Administrator Tom Jenkins said. "He impressed us as being very knowledgeable about parks."

Brevard, on Florida's East Coast, is home to the Kennedy Space Center and about 400,000 people, about half of whom live in the county's unincorporated areas.

In his new job, Nelson will be managing another parks system with ambitious plans for growth.

In 1985, Brevard voters approved a half-mill tax increase to buy land and build parks on the Atlantic Ocean and on the banks of the Indian, St. Johns and Banana rivers. A mill equals $1 in property taxes for each $1,000 of assessed, taxable property value.

The referendum, however, was just one step in Brevard's expansion program. In September's primary election, voters approved another quarter-mill tax increase to acquire inland property for natural preservation.

In addition to the waterfront parks and nature preserves, Brevard's parks system also includes parks with athletic fields and two golf courses. A third golf course is in the works.

Nelson, who makes $43,378 annually in Pasco, will start at $53,000 per year in Brevard. He will be running a department with an annual budget of about $9-million and about 200 employees, Jenkins said.

Pasco County personnel director Dan Johnson said the county has begun advertising for a replacement. The salary ranges from $37,761 to $55,905 annually.