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July 19, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Trees weren’t the only things Steve Saitta watched grow as he spent 38 years working for the Columbia Parks and Recreation Department — when he started, Columbia only had nine parks, and now it has more than 50.
This June, he retired from his position as superintendent of park planning and development after working longer than anyone else in the department. When Saitta began working as a horticulturist, he says he had planned on it being a temporary job, not a career. However, Saitta found himself becoming more and more involved as time passed. He says his extensive work on the MKT Trail and the Cosmo Recreation Area are two of his favorite projects.
After working so hard for the enjoyment of others, Saitta says he’ll spend his newfound free time having fun in other outdoor spaces. He plans to travel with his wife, visit their children and grandchildren, hike, kayak and fly fish. Like many others in town, he also wants to take advantage of the facilities he’s had a hand in designing and developing.
When you started at the department 38 years ago, did you have any idea you would spend your entire career there?
Not really. I started my career in Albuquerque as a landscape architect for a consulting firm. We really enjoyed our time in New Mexico, but we were quite a ways from family. My wife is from east Tennessee, and I’m from the St. Louis area. A professor friend of mine gave me a call, and he mentioned the job was available.
Did you always intend to work in a parks department?
I was kind of going backward in my career in terms of what I thought I was going to be doing, but I thought it would be a good interim job. Lo and behold, I happened to start during a time when the department was really beginning to look at some great opportunities in developing the park system in Columbia.
How extensive was your involvement with the MKT Trail?
It’s been very extensive. I helped work on the grant with another individual. I helped develop the before-and-after design of how we converted the railroad trestles to pedestrian use. We were awarded a federal grant and began building it in the late ’70s and completed the project in about 1982. I was involved in the design, and crews built the trail.
How do you keep up with so many parks?
Each year, we have money set aside through our capital improvement program. For new parks we have to acquire the land and do the design work. We base the design on a number of factors: Is it a neighborhood park, a community park or a development within a regional park? Eventually, we come to a plan that everyone can agree on. Then, we move forward to the development stage.
What do you think parks give to a community?
It provides a community with a way to come together. You’re able to bring young children here, enjoy the playground and build memories. Parks add a lot of enjoyment to a community and greatly add to the overall quality of life that’s offered in a town.
What types of parks has the department overseen?
We’ve got our neighborhood park program, which (handles) smaller parks that help serve the needs of residential populations. Then a community park would be 40 to 60 acres in size. The largest park area is what we call our regional parks, like Cosmo. We have special use parks, too.
What’s it like working for the Columbia Parks and Recreation Department?
It’s a team effort. I’m retiring after all these years, and I’ve been with the department longer than any other employee; it’s history. That’s kind of noteworthy, but so much of it boils down to the satisfaction that comes from working as a team.
What is your favorite park?
I love the trails and Cosmo Recreation Area. I’m probably most proud of the type of facilities we’ve been able to build throughout the system and the quality of the facilities over time. They’re well- maintained, they’ve served the community well for the most part, and they seem to be enjoyed by the vast majority of the citizens who use our parks. That gives me the best feeling of satisfaction.
What will you miss most about your job?
I will miss all the fine people I’ve been able to work with for all these years. The relationships that you build, that’s been very important. I’ll also miss, to some degree, that sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that you get when you design and build things that are successful and people enjoy.
What kind of legacy do you feel you’ve left behind?
I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve done all the years I’ve worked for the parks department. It’s hard to describe anything as a legacy for me, but it’s probably just the satisfaction of giving 100 percent. I’m thankful that a lot of the parks department seems to have been well-received by the community.
What are you planning to do next?
My wife and I are looking forward to retirement and being very active. Our kids and our grandkids are very important to us. Our intentions are to spend more time with them in areas we’ve become very fond of, Montana and California. So we’ll do a lot of visiting, and we’re going to work our schedules around some travel. We also love Columbia, and we’re going to be park users. We both love the idea of being able to volunteer, too.