Who's Running This Town? is a series of short profiles introducing Missourian readers to leaders in Columbia city government.
COLUMBIA — Many of Mike Griggs' childhood memories involve playing in youth baseball and football leagues. Decades later, when he was seeking the position of parks and recreation director, he used his experience to stand out in an application pool that, at more than 100 candidates, was the size of multiple sports teams.
Griggs said the lessons that his father, who was a firefighter and recreational league coach, taught him stand out among his childhood memories as he progressed from recreational sports to playing football and baseball for Hickman High School.
"Those are the programs my parents did a lot with me as a child," Griggs said. "I think the main thing my father was very good at was teaching the big picture, instead of just wins, losses and scores. Even if we weren't always one of the best teams, we always won things like sportsmanship awards. People forget wins and losses but not how you played the game."
Griggs, who was born and raised in Columbia, said his involvement in youth programs as a child and as an adult helped him land his current position in city government. It probably didn't hurt that he also had 20 years of experience working in the parks department.
"I was the only candidate who participated in the programs as a kid, coached them as an adult and had my sons play. I've been involved from all aspects," Griggs said. "It takes a little while to learn the nuances of a community like Columbia's. I knew the workings of its government and its culture going into the interview process."
After graduating from high school, Griggs studied psychology at MU but realized after a semester that it "wasn't for him." He took a break from his education to work in construction around town before returning to study years later.
"I was not your typical college student," Griggs said. "I was an older student (when I returned to MU) so I appreciated it a lot more. Working in the field and then going to school, I wanted to make sure my education counted the second round through."
Griggs earned his bachelor's degree in recreation and park administration* in 1985, then his master's in parks, recreation and tourism in 1991. He worked for Columbia as a sports recreation supervisor before he graduated, and he was parks and recreation director in Sedalia while he pursued his master's.
"I remember working in Sedalia and writing my thesis at the same time, and then having to drive back to Columbia for the ceremony," Griggs said.
Griggs became Columbia's park services manager in 1993 and was promoted to assistant director in 2012 before winning the top job a year later.
Much like a player in a football or baseball game, Griggs has had to adapt to changing circumstances each day of his work. That requires perseverance and engagement; Griggs said he sometimes has to respond to 25 to 30 emails an hour.
"When you live in a college town like Columbia, you get a lot of emails to the tune of, 'Hey, I'm working on a school project. Can you tell me about the budget?'" Griggs said. "Those are simple and easy, and we try to help out as best we can with research."
Griggs said the most enjoyable part of the job for him is creating a vision for Columbia's parks department.
"What I enjoy most is to look at what we're gonna be doing next year, two years, five years and 10 years down the road consistently," Griggs said. "For example, I see a point in time where, with Columbia's growth rate, we will need a new park management system on the other side of town with new maintenance guys so we don't spend more time traveling than working."
"It's important as director that those are the things we plan for — what we'll look like down the road."
Griggs' planning doesn't just extend to Columbia. He said one of his most important goals is to foster the same sort of living environment for his two boys that his parents did for him.
"I remember my parents always being very sociable. We were always having barbecues, picnics. Several firefighters would come over and play, and we'd have volleyball games," Griggs said. "That's something I want to pass on to my kids ... for them to have a place where they and their friends can always come and hang out. Our house is their house."
Similarly, Griggs said, he tries to be accommodating in soliciting Columbia residents' feedback on the parks and recreation projects he oversees.
"I think involving citizens is what we do the best at. We are so strongly driven by our citizen input process, and I think that's part of what makes Columbia's parks successful," Griggs said.
"It's one of the biggest things I take pride in," he said, "how we look at the big picture and involve citizens in getting our projects vetted and completed."
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