What better place to sit down with the newly named general manager of the El Dorado Hills Community Services District than on a bale of hay in Serrano’s Village Green during Pirates at the Library, one of many high-profile kids’ events in El Dorado Hills every summer, several of which are put on by the organization he’ll take the reins of on Sept. 10.
Sitting in the shade of a cluster of stately oaks, Robert “Brent” Dennis takes in the event’s central prop, the RMS Dauntless, an 80-foot long portable pirate ship, complete with 40-foot mast, crows nest and authentic swashbucklers clamoring though the rigging.
More grandly costumed pirates clomp about the deck waving swords, to the amusement of a clutch of teenage girls feigning nonchalance as they unknowingly soak up nautical lore.
The new GM is suitably impressed, and starts to discuss the value of “edutainment” attractions, something he learned from Walt Disney’s personal landscape architect and theme park designer Scott Girard.
He’s interrupted by the protestations of a kindergarten-age buccaneer, nerf-saber in hand and eye patch in place, who bellows “You’ll walk the plank for this!” and stomps by with a haggard mother in pursuit.
The impromptu theater puts a smile to the face of Dennis, 54, whose 30-plus years in the parks and recreation field, most recently as director of operations in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, have also turned a few frowns upside down.
Dennis spent the majority of his career managing non-profit “public gardens,” consistently widened their appeal, often with attractions and events like Pirates at the Library, often at a steeper door charge than the suggested $1 donation for Saturday’s Pirate experience.
As a result, he’s left each non-profit stronger financially, with endowments and master plans in place, often expanding or enhancing facilities along the way.
Dennis graduated from Ohio State at Columbus in 1980 with a degree in landscape architecture, and was working for the city by his junior year. His big break occurred when Columbus was selected as the site of nation’s first international garden festival.
Held in 1992 at a cost of $95 million, the “Ameriflora” exhibit attracted 5.5 million visitors, requiring a massive makeover of historic Franklin Park and its centerpiece 1895 conservatory.
Disney’s “edutainer” Girard was brought in and schooled the young landscape architect in “designing spaces for people,” he said.
When the exhibit closed the city formed a joint recreation district and hired Dennis to run it under an 18-member board. “That’s what got me off the drafting board,” he said.
He hosted a string of creative special exhibits and attractions over the years, including the largest temporary butterfly exhibit in the world, a six-week show “that had lines around the park to get in,” he recalled.
It became an annual 12-week event and a major economic driver for Columbus. He’s been invited back for the 20th anniversary in April 2013.
Fast forward to 2002. The city of San Francisco hired Dennis to manage two major attractions in Golden Gate Park, the 55-acre Botanical Gardens and the landmark 1879 Conservatory of Flowers, the oldest wood and glass greenhouse in North America and first structure built at the park.
Part of the challenge, he said, was managing a blended team of well-compensated city employees and not-for-profit partners that earn far less, or nothing at all, as volunteers.
Each attraction was run “hand to mouth” when he arrived, and consequently was subject to dramatic financial crises. In what he modestly described as an “entrepreneurial bend” he immediately brought in more and better exhibitions.
The revenue impact rippled from admission through food, beverage and facility rentals. Operations stabilized. Contingency and deferred maintenance accounts were funded.
In just his second year on the job he was recognized by then-mayor Gavin Newsom as a top city manager for fiscal accomplishment.
He subsequently worked with the Convention and Visitors Bureau on a campaign to get visitors to stay an extra day. “We gave them a reason to stay,” he said. The results were recognized by the Board of Supervisors and the mayor, which led to his promotion to director of operations for the entire park.
As if sensing a segue, Ace Miles takes the stage behind Dennis and begins his hilarious Capt. Jack Spareribs pirate shtick, Johnny Depp’s piratized Keith Richards imitation, a regular feature of Pirates at the Library.
Tempting as it is to stay, we have an interview to conclude, so we retreat to the gazebo on the Village Green goose pond and join some ‘tweens noshing pirate pizza.
Dennis’s strong resumé and his ascent to leadership in San Francisco beg the question: “Is he over qualified?”
He doesn’t see it that way. Dennis said he enjoyed developing strategic plans and facilities, but missed working directly with the public.
“I would never take on a new leadership role if I didn’t, in my heart, feel I could make a difference, and I see lots of opportunities here,” he said.
CSD Board President Tony Rogozinski said he asked the new GM if he’d get bored in El Dorado Hills, and was eventually convinced that the product of Ohio and Michigan was at a point in life where he was ready for a fresh start with new challenges, away from the politics and congestion of San Francisco.
Dennis professed a passion for youth sports and said he coached his son through a successful Little League career, and continued to coach even after his kids left for college.
His son currently plays short stop at the University of Michigan and was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays, but elected to stay in school. His daughter studies business at Baker College in Michigan. Both left home during the decade he was director of the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids. Mich.
Dennis later ran the Klehm Arboretum and Botanical Garden in Rockford, Ill., where he oversaw a master plan and created educational programs and an endowment fund.
“Putting the fiscal house in order” has been the hallmark of his leadership roles, he said, “creating surpluses while investing in facilities and putting money aside to maintain them” — all goals of his new role in El Dorado Hills, albeit on a smaller scale.
The skills required to run a successful nonprofit: fundraising, public speaking, budget management, team building and volunteer recruitment, are what the CSD directors said they wanted in a GM, he said, “So it looks like a good fit and I can’t wait to dig in.”
Rogozinski cited Dennis’ success in volunteerism as a prime indicator of his leadership. Other than isolated church and scouting projects, the district has failed to deliver on a long-standing goal of broad-based volunteerism.
More than any other candidate, Dennis engaged residents and district employees as part of his due diligence on El Dorado Hills, Rogozinski said, explaining,. “He spent a couple of days here and really made an effort to get to know the place.”
Dennis also read and digested the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats analysis prepared by interim GM Rich Rodriguez upon departure and available on the CSD website.
The board hired Rodriguez in January to ensure the district was in decent shape for an incoming permanent GM. The interim surpassed expectations, and informed the decision-making process, “demonstrating the type of person we need in the seat,” said Rogozinski.
Rodriguez is retired, and can only work five months per year, but his decisive operational leadership was an elixir for a district reeling from the John Skeel firing, added Rogozinski. Like the interim that precedes him, Dennis struck the board as someone who wasn’t afraid to make tough decisions.
“He’s a relationship builder,” said Rogozinski. “He’s seasoned, he’s smart and he knows when to dig deep and when to lay back.”
With two major CSD positions still open, Dennis will get to shape the organization he inherits, starting Sept. 10.
The new GM said he plans to stay with a friend in West Sacramento in the early going, and hopes to find suitable digs in El Dorado Hills longer term.
Director Bill Vandegrift cast the lone nay vote on Dennis’s contract, citing concerns with the process and the salary. Dennis starts at $142,500, whereas John Skeel made $126,000.
Vandegrift later said he wasn’t voting against Dennis, simply making a statement that he’d hoped that local candidates or those from the private sector might be available for less money.
Other directors told Village Life they felt working with an elected board under the auspices of the Brown Act, dealing with public sector unions and being the face of the district to a sometimes-grumpy general public is too great a leap from private sector management.
San Francisco, with its own “politics, bureaucracy, stakeholders and special interests” surrounding every project was a great training ground for dealing with controversial projects and people, said Dennis, citing the example of soccer fields.
Like El Dorado Hills, the San Francisco soccer community is desperate for practice fields. Fog and gophers made turf fields difficult to maintain, expensive and dangerous for kids. He oversaw a particularly vitriolic battle over plans for synthetic soccer fields near the beach. “Wildlife people were concerned about flight patterns, neighbors didn’t want the lights, others argued that the rubber surface was unhealthy.”
Lawsuits ensued. The fields have yet to be built.
“Not to downplay the issues in El Dorado Hills, but I’m pretty well-seasoned on the kinds of problems that come up,” Dennis said. “It takes diplomacy. I had to learn to be a good listener and to navigate to best solutions, knowing that everyone won’t be satisfied.”
Dennis was in El Dorado Hills on Thursday night and witnessed the turnout for Sky Mote. It shaped his understanding of what El Dorado Hills can be, he said. “Just getting people outside, into a park, is a noble goal, but we can also be the glue that helps pull this community together.”