As a kid growing up in New Orleans, Corey Wilson says his childhood benefited in a big way from the local parks and recreation system.
“Not really having a father at the home, it shaped my character to be able to go to parks and be part of sports teams and work with coaches,” Wilson says. “Parks bring communities together.”
Now, as the newly appointed BREC superintendent—and as a father with a young family—Wilson also feels the importance of those green spaces and public sports facilities. He’s combining this awareness with six years of experience as BREC’s second-in-command as he takes over the organization following the January retirement of superintendent Carolyn McKnight.
We sat down with the Morehouse College and Harvard Law School alumnus to discuss his vision for the award-winning local parks system, its challenges and what’s going on with the Baton Rouge Zoo. brec.org
Tell us about your vision for BREC.
My vision is to build on the foundation and legacy of people like [former superintendents] Gene Young and Carolyn McKnight and for BREC to remain at the top of the list of best things to do here in Baton Rouge. I want to keep providing a high level of service to our customers. I also want to take advantage of this
data-driven era we’re living in and use data to show where we’re doing well and where there are areas of improvement. Better collection of data can show us our economic impact, how fast we respond to the community and whether or not we are servicing our sites equitably.
What’s the latest on the Baton Rouge Zoo? How do you hope to improve it?
Since last March when the BREC Commission decided to keep the current location of the zoo, we got to work on improving that site and Greenwood Park nearby. After a request-for-proposals process, we selected two firms: Sasaki in Boston, which has a lot of experience with parks, and Torre Design Consortium in New Orleans, which did the Audubon Zoo, Mike the Tiger’s Habitat and many other zoo projects. We feel great about the team. We’ve been collecting public input in both meetings and online. In early May, we will have another public meeting to discuss the preliminary design, which will include bringing both sites together as one seamless attraction with a single dramatic entrance. We think we’re headed in the right direction.
What’s the biggest issue facing BREC right now?
Our biggest issue is no different from any other government entity in that funding is always a concern. There’s never enough funds to [deal with] the multitude of issues the public wants. For example, to redesign the zoo at a new site would have been $100 million, and to create major changes at the LSU Lakes, which is arguably one the most visited recreational sites in the region, is $40 million to $50 million. One of the ways we plan to address this challenge is by leveraging tax dollars with private partners and philanthropic sources of funding.
What are some of the projects you’re most passionate about?
Certainly the zoo and Greenwood Park, since those are primary objectives this year. One of the reasons I’m excited is because the zoo was considered such a divisive issue, so I see this as an opportunity to bring the community together with a site that can become a regional attraction. Also, I’m really excited about the $15 million project we’re doing with the Boys and Girls Club at Howell Community Park. They will build a facility at the site to service their program but that will also be available to the public. It will enhance the park and the other things we have underway there.
Your career has taken some interesting turns, including disaster relief administration and corporate law. What made you say yes to parks and recreation when you came on board in 2012?
The park is the symbol of the gathering place in the community. I said yes originally because I had the right skills—law, accounting and government. But working here and being immersed in the impacts of a parks system has won me over about the mission of recreation in our communities.
Give us some advice. What three BREC experiences should we try this year?
That’s like asking who your favorite child is. With so many facilities and with hundreds of programs, I don’t want to slight any. But we do know that a significant portion of the parish has been to neither the zoo nor Greenwood Park, so I would suggest them. There are lots of great things going on.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
This article was originally published in the April 2019 issue of 225 Magazine.