For Davis it’s time to enjoy recreation, instead of working it

Ron Davis, front, is only a few days away from walking out the door as Oxford Township Parks and Recreation Director. On July 1, he hands over the keys to the parks to Phil Castonia (back). Photo by D. Rush.

By Don Rush

Ron Davis is good at seeing the forest through the trees, or reading the writing on the wall. Pick your anecdote, because the outgoing Oxford Township Parks and Recreation Director knew earlier this year it was time to hang up his spurs, step back and retire.

“It’s time,” Davis, 58, said. “I didn’t want to be that person who just stays on forever, collecting a paycheck and taking money away from the community. It’s time to turn the reins over to somebody else so they can continue what’s been started and take the parks to the next level.”

He announced his retirement this past January and told the community he would stay on until July, to make sure the park’s big event of the year, the Seymour Celebration ran without a hitch. So, after 27 years with the parks and recreation department come July 1, Ron Davis will no longer be executive director. The parks and recreation commission hired township resident Phil Castonia, 43, to take over the department’s helm. He has worked the last 16 years for Oakland County Parks and Recreations. Prior to that he worked for Ron as the township’s Assistant Parks Director from 2003 to 2006.

“This is our home,” Castonia said for he, his wife Melissa and their four children. “I wanted to be a bigger part of this community. I will continue what Ron has built and continue to make sure the parks and rec enhances the quality of life for residents. It’s exciting. I am looking forward to serving this community and making sure to keep the level of service up where Ron has set it.”

Davis was hired by the parks and recreation commission on Sept. 11, 1995. He and his wife Michelle moved to Oxford in 1992 and it was she who convinced him to apply for the job.

“Back then the field of directors was so small, you knew everybody who was going to apply and who was I? Michelle kept on me,” he said.

The department wasn’t what it is today, with over 500 acres of land made up of four parks.

“It was so small back then,” Davis said. “When I was hired I had to evaluate. Had to look at what the department was, what I knew it could be and where I wanted it to go. Then, we just had to figure out how to fill the gap and make it happen. The department was just me and Bud Hansen. We had Stony Beach, Seymour Lake Park and like five programs. But, my dad always taught me, if you want something it’s up to you to figure out how to make it happen. Then do it.”

Now the department has summer camps, gymnastics, youth, adult, family and senior enrichment programs, youth and adult athletic programs, it includes the Oxford Senior Center, health and wellness programs, a travel club and even pickleball.

“You wouldn’t believe how popular pickleball is,” Davis said, pointing to a full court of pickleball players. “Those courts are full of pickleballers four days out of the week!”

Since taking on the mantle of parks and recreation director, the department has added Kings Kingdom playground, a splash pad, two sledding hills, an ice rink, two 18-hole disc golf courses, observation walkways and picked up two additional parks. Powell Lake Township Park is 56 acres and Oakwood Township Park is 300 acres.

So, how did all that happen?

According to Davis it was all about first building relationships with the community, local business and the Oxfords school district.

“I wanted to make the parks and recreation a major player in the community and to the residents. I needed to share my beliefs on what this department could be. It has value. You show me a community with a strong parks department and I will show you a strong community. But, first I had to gain their trust. I had an idea, but I needed the community to buy into it. I had to let them know what our plans and goals were. Then we had to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. Once the ball started rolling things took off,” he said.

And what that meant was the community started backing his idea of a parks and recreation department that was strong and one that enhanced the quality of life for residents. Monetary donations, in-kind business donations, support from the school district and taxpayers who voted millages and bond issues to improve and grow the parks. Oh, and because there’s only a finite amount of local money, he wanted to write grant proposals but didn’t know how.

“I had to learn on the fly,” he said, chuckling. “And it worked. For a kid who barely got out of high school I figured it out. Once one of my professors from Central Michigan University knew I could write grants, he had me teaching a masters class in grant writing at CMU. Not bad.”

Davis will be quick to deflect accolades. “It was never about me. I was hired to do what I did and it could not have been done without our employees, nor without the support of the community, businesses and the schools. We have over 500 acres, many programs and manage it with a staff of eight people. It’s phenomenal the job our staff does. Our parks superintendent Jeff Kinasz is amazing. Our department is now recognized throughout the state for what we are able to pull off and, I’d put our department up against any in the state.”

Davis was grateful for his time on the job.

“It’s been 27 great years. Michelle and I raised our three kids (Sarah, Shelby and Seth) here. And we have been blessed. We really learned that when we lost Seth to his accident. The community stepped up for us — the caring,  the solidarity – we were blessed. It’s been an honor to serve this community,” he said.

And, soon he and Michelle will retire “up north” where they have purchased a lake home. “My mom always wanted to live on a lake, so now Michelle and I will. It’s time to make recreation fun again. We’re just gonna’ live, I will hunt, fish and do some golfing. And, the kids can come visit whenever they can.”

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