Hamilton County's new director of parks and recreation, Matt Folz, is a self-styled "parkie."
"Once you get a job in the outdoors, it's tough to go back inside," he said in a phone interview Thursday.
After spending about two years with the county as the superintendent of the Tennessee Riverpark, Folz was unanimously confirmed Wednesday as the county's new parks director, replacing former director Tom Lamb. Mayor Weston Wamp appointed Folz to the role, which required signoff from the Hamilton County Commission.
"I think in the months ahead we all have a unique and very aspirational set of opportunities to invest in our parks in this county," Wamp said during the commission's meeting Wednesday. "In what I've been told is a somewhat unusual move, we decided to post this position, even though it's an appointed position, and we had some 35 or so applicants from all across the country."
Folz was the most passionate and qualified person who applied for the job, the mayor said.
"He and I have in common that we wrangle four children under 10," Wamp said. "He spends a lot of time in our county parks. He came to the interview prepared with extensive ideas, concepts, maps of our properties, potential uses and I think we'll all find him to be an incredible public servant."
Before joining Hamilton County, Folz worked for about 14 years with Xanterra Parks & Resorts, which he said operates facilities in several national parks and is one of the largest concessionaires in the country. That included six years Folz spent as the director of sustainability and risk management at Glacier National Park in Montana and another five years as a manager at Crater Lake National Park in Oregon.
Raised in Indiana, Folz, his wife and their four kids moved to the area to be closer to family, he said. His salary as parks director will be $92,700.
"Once you land in Chattanooga, it's tough to keep driving," Folz said. "You kind of have to stop and appreciate the view and make it a place to live."
Hamilton County has approximately 90 full-time employees in its park system, Folz said, who help operate three regional parks -- Chester Frost, Enterprise South and the Tennessee Riverpark -- and more than a dozen community parks. Wamp's spokesperson, Mary Francis Hoots, said 77 of those 90 positions are filled.
"As with every department in county government, there is always fluctuation with staffing," Hoots said in an email. "We are excited to have new leadership in the Parks & Recreation Department, and we are looking forward to its impact on our recruiting and hiring efforts."
There are also some big projects on the horizon. In August, Hamilton County accepted the conveyance of 213 acres of open space and forest land at Walden's Ridge from the North Chickamauga Creek Conservancy.
Through a partnership between the Land Trust for Tennessee, the Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association and others, the land is being developed into a park with access to mountain biking, hiking and climbing. The county is now building a parking lot to improve access to the site's gravity bicycling trails. According to the project's website, partners hope to open the park in 2023.
"It's going to be something that's 10 minutes from city center that is just going to add one more place for the public to go to enjoy outdoor recreation in our own backyard," Folz said.
In December 2021, the county purchased the McDonald Farm in Sale Creek for $16 million. The property, which totals more than 2,100 acres, could be developed for multiple uses including additional parkland.
Commissioner Warren Mackey, D-Lake Vista, applauded Folz's appointment Wednesday.
"I totally agree with the mayor that he has selected an outstanding person," Mackey said. "If we can get some more workers for him, we'll be in great shape."
Commissioner Steve Highlander, R-Ooltewah, thanked Wamp for "going above and beyond the call of duty" in selecting a candidate for the position, stating that he appreciated the depth of the search.
Looking forward, Folz said he wants to ensure the county has safe and equitable parks that are easily accessible to residents.
"That's kind of what I like about Tennessee Riverpark," he noted. "Across the board, it's kind of an artery that connects the heart of the town and allows everyone a place to go recreate."