Column – Remembering the man who birthed IW parks and rec
Published 6:15 pm Tuesday, September 12, 2023
Isle of Wight Fair Week seems an excellent time to remember one of the most effective and least appreciated Isle of Wight County employees during the past half-century, Alan Nogiec, who was the county’s parks and recreation director for 28 years.
Things didn’t look promising for Nogiec or for the county’s fledgling parks and recreation program when he was hired in 1979 as director of something called the Recreation Facilities Authority.
The authority had been created in 1974 to manage the Carrollton Nike Park, which had been deeded to the county by the federal government little more than a year earlier. The independent authority was deemed the best option for a county that had little staff and few departments.
To manage the authority, a five-member board was named and from the outset, its members had trouble agreeing on the time of day, much less anything of substance. Four directors were hired and four left during the first five years of the authority’s life.
Internal squabbling was probably inevitable, given the authority’s huge task and limited resources. The county had turned the former Nike missile site over to the group and budgeted a grand total of $50,000 a year to create and operate a recreation program, including the new park.
Thus, parks and recreation began as a poor stepchild among county services. In fact, the very idea of a county recreation program had been anathema to the staunchly conservative rural county that existed here in the early 1970s. Government back then was expected to fund education (always grudgingly), a very small sheriff’s department, a share of an agricultural extension program and social services for the county’s poor (again, grudgingly).
The idea of building parks or other recreation facilities never crossed the minds of those elected to manage the county budget.
That had changed almost overnight in 1972 when the Army offered its former Nike Missile site in Carrollton to the county. The base had lain vacant for a decade after its decommissioning in 1961, and the federal government, with no plans for the property, offered it for local public use.
That’s how the county stumbled into having a parks and recreation program. Despite its small budget and internal rankling, the authority developed plans to turn the old missile site into a county park and to convert a former school in Camptown to a community center. Directors, paid embarrassingly low wages, understandably came and went.
Into that makeshift environment walked Conneçticut native and Windsor resident Alan S. Nogiec.
Nogiec was creative, organized, quick to see possibilities and sufficiently talented to bring about things other people couldn’t imagine happening. And he was willing to try ideas that seemed good for the county even if they were a stretch and, ultimately, would not pan out.
Underlying his talent was an affable personality that allowed him to deftly maneuver among those who ran the county and wrote his paycheck. His longevity with Isle of Wight was proof of his success in doing so.
One of Nogiec’s greatest strengths, often missing in public service, was his willingness to listen to the county’s residents. He built the Nike Park pretty much from scratch but adjusted initial plans to fit what people wanted.
For example, early plans had called for a campground, a sulky track, a miniature golf course, driving range and a 12-acre lake. Public needs pointed the program in different directions. Baseball diamonds, used largely by softball leagues, became a popular fixture, and within a few years increasing interest in soccer led to creation of multiple soccer fields at the park.
He assumed responsibility for the newly acquired Fort Boykin, a historic site on the James River that had been deeded to the state and in turn leased to Isle of Wight.
He personally organized the county’s still-popular fireworks displays and led the county fair organization for a number of years, doing much of the formative work that helped make the fair the huge county event it is today.
Two decades into Nogiec’s career here, the county had grown dramatically and no longer liked having an independent authority running parks and recreation. The Board of Supervisors demanded the dissolution of the authority and created the county Parks and Recreation Department. Nogiec survived that transition and became the new department’s director.
Swampland and county politics eventually ended Nogiec’s career. The Board of Supervisors bought a bog known as String-of-Logs Poquoson north of Windsor and declared it the county fairground. It was wet more often than not. Heavy rains flooded the site and one of them wiped out a complete week of fair activities. The supervisors had told Nogiec to correct the problems but up until then hadn’t provided the necessary resources to do so.
Meanwhile, a freak storm had flooded the basement of the county museum in Smithfield.
Nogiec was an easy target for both problems, and his county staff superiors were ready and willing to let him take the fall. In early 2007, Nogiec became one of 10 supervisory-level county officials to be fired, forced to resign or demoted.
Assistant County Administrator at the time, Patrick Small wouldn’t let Nogiec go quietly. He publicly accused him of suppressing information about the museum’s potential to flood prior to the 2006 storm.
Nogiec sued Small for defamation and won in a rare case that went to the state Supreme Court.
By then, winning the suit was a matter of pride for a person who had given three decades of his life to the county, only to be driven out in what appeared to be a broad purge of courthouse personnel.
In retirement, Nogiec worked as an entertainment consultant, a role for which he was uniquely qualified. He died in 2021.
It would be nice if, someday, the county recognized the role this Connecticut Yankee played in developing a modern parks and recreation for the county that came to be his beloved home.
John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.