Helping Huntington have fun

When it's time to retire, it's time to retire. For Huntington Beach's Community Service Director Jim Engle, that time was last year.

The Fountain Valley resident did retire, but he never ended up leaving.

Instead, he stayed on part time to get the Community Services Department through its share of $3 million in budget cuts and to reorganize the department in a citywide overhaul.

The year turned out to be the most stressful of his career, but with his last day in sight, Engle said it was all worth it.

Engle, 61, finally retired just before Christmas after more than 37 years in the department. From center director in 1973, when he was fresh out of college and had recently moved to Huntington Beach, Engle climbed the ladder until he took the helm in 2003.

"I've been lucky," he said before Christmas. "I've been here 37 years. I've had seven different positions. So I've been blessed in that I've been allowed to move around, get different experiences and move up the ladder."

'Field of the future'

Engle grew up northwest of Bakersfield playing Little League and flag football. Still, there was no recreation department in small-town Shafter, his California Central Valley hometown. It wasn't until an orientation class at Bakersfield Community College that he even heard of recreation as a possible career.

During the orientation, he was told that "recreation was the field of the future," but he was already on a different path. Engle went to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo as an architectural engineering major until he realized it just wasn't for him.

It was then that the words from his community college orientation came back. Looking for a major that would produce job opportunities, Engle transferred to San Diego State as a recreation administration major. The idea of working at parks sounded fun, he said.

"I wanted a secure career," Engle said. "I wanted to make the community better in some small way."

After he graduated, Engle found out he wasn't the only one who had heard the spiel about the field of the future. Every job he applied for had at least 100 other applicants.

Engle gave himself a year to find a job in his field, but within three months, he applied for center director in Huntington Beach. Two months later, he started. As the center director, Engle oversaw the Edison Community Center and worked directly with the public.

He ran classes, set up programs for all ages, organized special events and put on camps.

"You're in your own kingdom there in that community or that neighborhood or area," he said. "And you really have the feeling that this is mine. It was really a wonderful experience."

Adopted by Surf City, Hard Decisions

With a job in his field, Engle was always looking at moving up to bigger and better things. About every five years, he would look at where he was and wonder if he was successful enough. Throughout his career, he applied for higher positions at other cities, but he never could leave.

"When I started looking at other jobs and I had to make a decision: Do I want to take this position or not?" he said. "The bottom line is, I love Huntington Beach, the people I work with, the job experience.

"I'm comfortable here, and I feel like I could be successful here, so I would turn down other jobs."

Engle moved up the ranks in Huntington Beach. He held six positions before he became the department's director in 2003.

Engle was handed the director's job with the directive to cut more than $1 million from the budget and reorganize the department, and he was asked to do it again during his last year.

City Manager Fred Wilson said asking Engle to stay with the city on contract was the best move for Huntington Beach. The move not only saved the city money, but allowed the city to keep him onboard so they could take advantage of his expertise and knowledge of the department, Wilson said.

"With the many demands and changes taking place due to budget cuts, having [Engle] remain with the city provided continuity and stability for the staff," he said.

When Engle first had to make the budget cuts, he said he had to figure out what to cut and how to cut that would minimize impacts to the public.

Now, Engle said, cuts are getting to a point where it's almost too much to keep providing an adequate level of service to residents. The city made cuts to lifeguard hours during the nonpeak season, axed seven crossing guard locations and eliminated 137 positions citywide.

He had hoped this would be the year he could get out in the community more, but that didn't turn out to be the case.

"It's been the hardest year of my career," he said. "I've had to tell people who I've known for 25 years on my staff that they're going to be on my proposed cut list. That's hard."

A long track record

Although Engle has almost four decades of service behind him, he has a hard time taking credit for his work.

"I really appreciate the accolades, but I don't accomplish anything," he said. "Everything we do here, whether I'm working with my own team in Community Services or working with other departments … it's all a product of teamwork."

Despite his modesty, Engle has put a lot into his job and the community. Working 50- to 60-hour weeks and logging time over the weekends, Engle was behind many projects.

Engle worked to get the Central Park Sports Complex back on track and completed within budget after its original contractor took payment advances for the project without completing the work. He was involved in the renovation of the City Gym and Pool, which was slated to be torn down. The site is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

He brought in city sponsorships with Hollister, Nissan and TruTV's "Ocean Force" TV show, Wilson said. Engle also arranged a deal with Toyota to supply the city with vehicles for the lifeguards and beach maintenance crews.

Wilson said Engle's greatest achievement has been the completion of the Pier Plaza project. Engle helped create the plaza with its 230-seat amphitheatre, stairs to the beach and lawn and a mural of the city's past. The project also included building the parking lots on both sides of the pier and the construction of Duke's and what is now Sandy's Beach Grill.

"The city of Huntington Beach's main attraction is our pier, and through Jim's efforts, we have created a welcoming environment for visitors and residents alike," Wilson wrote in an e-mail.

Engle has also helped community groups complete their projects. He helped the Shipley Nature Center get grants and has always been a friend to the Fourth of July Board.

Executive Board Director Pat Stier, who has worked with Engle for nine years, said he paid attention to detail and was easy to work with and devoted to the job. Engle always greeted Stier with a hug and acted like he hadn't seen her in 10 years, she said.

"I don't know what we're going to do without him," Stier said.

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