Newly retired SC state parks director joins Clemson PRTM
Clemson’s department of parks, recreation and tourism management has gained a veteran of South Carolina’s state parks system as faculty this fall. Phil Gaines, a Clemson alum, began his tenure as director of South Carolina State Parks in 2005 and has enjoyed a 37-year career with the parks system.
This fall, Gaines will teach a park planning class and work on leadership development initiatives with Clemson’s Institute for Parks. He said he looks forward to working with faculty and students at Clemson to share the practical knowledge he’s gained throughout his career.
“Parks, recreation and tourism management is tasked with producing thinkers and leaders who work in the gray because problems in the real world are rarely black and white,” Gaines said. “I’m excited to work in academia so that I can bring practical experience that will help faculty and students.”
Gaines’ career was marked by a quick climb up the ranks into leadership and executive positions where he inspired some of the most sweeping changes in park management. He helped conceptualize the transformation of state parks from custodial assets to natural and cultural destinations.
When he became assistant state park director in 2000, he was able to focus on strategic goals that favored stewardship and service. When he became director in 2005, state parks were mandated to move closer to a self-sufficient enterprise that could generate revenue to cover costs and operate efficiently.
Under Gaines’ leadership, the park made the necessary changes to upgrade infrastructure, improve visitors’ experiences, and encourage repeat visitation. In just 11 years under Gaines’ leadership, the park service went from a system that generated $18 million in revenue and covered about 73 percent of its expenses, to one that generated $27 million that paid for 95 percent of its operational costs.
“I gave a lot of myself to state parks, but I’ve received so much more in return,” Gaines said. “I’ve met people who have changed my life and who have become lifelong friends. My hope is I left my mark and that the foundation is deep and strong, and that the next generation is ready to do some good stuff.”
Gaines’ affinity for that “next generation” is a primary reason Clemson faculty are so happy to have him join the department. Wayne Freimund, chair of Clemson’s parks, recreation and tourism management department, said Gaines has proven throughout his career that he can communicate the value of parks to a variety of audiences that might otherwise not pay attention.
Freimund said Gaines is a sought-after trainer, teacher and speaker, and his skills and track record in sustainable financing and his ability to bring an institution out of financial hardship will prove illuminating to current students. More importantly, Freimund believes Gaines can show how a student in the major often has to act as the umbrella for other disciplines.
“Phil is the embodiment of what we want our students to be,” Freimund said. “He graduated here, hit the pinnacle of his field and he brings 37 years of experience back to our students. It has been his responsibility to work with engineers, architects, accountants and then be the conduit that society understands.”
Gaines would likely play down such praise and put the focus more on the work. This was certainly his strategy on his last day on the job as director of state parks. During his last day in the system in early August, Gaines performed the same park duties he handled as a young ranger in 1982. He cleaned bathrooms, took out the trash and landscaped at King’s Mountain State Park in Blacksburg.
With only hours left before his retirement was official, Gaines found himself in the midst of coworkers, colleagues and friends, all celebrating his long career. But in his final hours on the job, he chose to walk the park alone to reflect on his career and think about his coming time at Clemson. He said his future on campus felt like a career coming full circle.
“Clemson faculty helped me get a job in state parks, and as an alum it’s always stayed connected to me after 40 years,” Gaines said. “I know I’m the rule and not the exception in that department. It’s what we talk about when we say ‘Clemson Family.’ It’s real, and it’s what makes Clemson a special place.”