After nearly four decades working for the St. Louis Park Parks and Recreation Department, Craig Panning has a lot to be proud of.
And no building better symbolizes his legacy than the .
Twenty years after starting with the department, Panning oversaw the 1997 Rec Center addition, which brought the Aquatic Park, a second sheet of ice and the lobby area.
Fifteen years later, Panning retired on May 4 as the department's manager of buildings and structures following a 37-year career filled with great stories from the Rec.
After a well-deserved fishing trip, St. Louis Park Patch caught up with Panning last week at the Rec Center—his first time back in the building since retiring—and talked about what he misses most about his job, the most memorable Rec Center events over the years, and how a new community center could succeed.
St. Louis Park Patch: What do you miss most about your job?
Craig Panning: Definitely the people I worked with. And I knew that before I retired, that that would be the tough part. I think our Parks and Rec Department here is very fortunate to have the staff we do. I always say that we had a lot of fun, but we got a lot of things done along the way, too.
St. Louis Park Patch: What does the Rec Center mean to you?
Panning: I devoted 37 years to the city, and most of them in this building. I had a lot to do with the addition in 1997, and I was proud of that.
St. Louis Park Patch: You’ve seen the addition in use for 15 years. What do you think of it?
Panning: I’ve always said, if you were going to design a facility from new, maybe it wouldn’t have this layout. But given that we had to add on to an existing facility, I don’t think, looking back, that I would’ve recommended changing anything. This large lobby area … has been really nice to have. I think it turned out very nice.
St. Louis Park Patch: And I assume it puts a smile on your face when you see people smiling and having fun in here?
Panning: Oh, it does. My wife and I never had any kids, but we say we have thousands of kids at the Rec Center. It’s amazing—some of the maintenance folks who are working here, I hired them when they were 16 years old. I watched them grow up.
St. Louis Park Patch: When you’re not at the lake fishing these days, do you plan on going to a few hockey games and other events here?
Panning: I probably will more now then when I was working here. Especially for the hockey games. The guys I worked with, they were great—I just got the heck out of their way and let them run the hockey games. And I was here so much. But now, I’m not here anymore, I’m sure I’ll come back for some games.
St. Louis Park Patch: Do you have a favorite Rec Center story or memory?
Panning: Probably the addition in ’97. That was the highlight of my career, anyway. It was a big project and, like I said, I was proud of how it turned out. There were trials and tribulations along the way, but I’d say that was the highlight.
St. Louis Park Patch: Any sporting events that really stand out?
Panning: Well, the largest crowd we ever had in this building was figure skating-related, back in the early- to mid-1980s. We hosted two or three Upper Midwest figure skating championships. It was all in preparation for the nationals. One year was when Dorothy Hamill was a pretty well-known skater, and she skated here. This building was packed to the rafters. So that was probably the biggest single event we’ve had in the building. And one that came very close was the (Jack) Jablonski fundraiser and . I think figure skating had a few more people, but then we also didn’t have this lobby, and the lobby was full for the Jablonski fundraiser. Those were definitely the largest events we’ve had.
St. Louis Park Patch: Would you like to maybe see the Rec Center expanded again, or changed in some way?
Panning: Well, the city is going through a right now. I would think logistically I don’t know how you’d add any more facilities onto this location. One of our biggest challenges was parking, and as we started developing plans, I actually suggested that we look at a parking ramp. Everyone thought I was kidding at the time, but I really wasn’t. Short of doing something like that, I don’t know you’d have enough space here to add another facility. I think the community would be in arms if we tried to take any more of the park, because in the time when we had this addition, we already encroached into the park somewhat and had to remove a lot of trees. So that was kind of controversial at that time.
St. Louis Park Patch: What about that community center idea? Would that be something you’d like to see?
Panning: I think if you could get the right combination of amenities and have everyone on the same page for the financial expectations, (I think it’d work). I’ve always kind of said that we have the revenue producing facilities here—the outdoor pool, and the double sheet of ice. So, financially, at this building, we’re doing alright, but some of the other amenities that you would probably add, I’m not sure there wouldn’t have to be a pretty large financial commitment for the ongoing operation of it. As long as everybody is on board with that, I think it’s a great idea. But there have been a lot of facilities built where the expectations and the realities haven’t met, and then folks get in trouble and people lose their jobs. I would hate to see that happen.
St. Louis Park Patch: What’s next for you in retirement?
Panning: Well, my wife and I have owned—well actually the property has been in my family for 30 years—but we bought a couple acres of land from my mom about 10 years ago on Lake Francis in Annandale, MN. We started building our house out there four years ago. It was supposed to be a cabin, but it kind of turned into a house. I always wanted to build one house in my life. It’s very comfortable staying there now, but I’ve got a lot of painting and staining and tiling (to do). So for the first couple years, my intention is to spend more time (on this) and hopefully finish the house. And actually spend a little more time fishing, which actually turned out to be very good last week. Longer term, as we go down the road, I’m not saying there’s isn’t a possibility I’d go back to work somewhere, on a part-time basis or whatever the case might be.
St. Louis Park Patch: I imagine you have some knowledge you could share with folks.
Panning: Definitely. I think I could be an asset for doing some consulting and that type of thing.
St. Louis Park Patch: Any travel plans?
Panning: Definitely. We’re talking about next winter maybe going to Hawaii for a few weeks. We’ve been there a couple times, but it’s been a few years. We have six weeks left on a time-share in Mexico, which you can exchange anywhere in the world. So that’ll force us to get out and go somewhere.