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Growing the Parks and Rec. Dept.

Harder steps in to help develop programs

SOLON– This is exactly what he wants to do.
“I’m really excited to be here,” said new Solon Recreation Director Tom Harder. “This is a job that I’ve been picturing myself in for a long time.”
Harder, 26, started his position Dec. 16, replacing Ben Flaherty, who served in the job from September of 2018 to Nov. 7.
A native of Iowa City, Harder attended West High, and stayed in town to attend the University of Iowa (UI), obtaining both his undergraduate and master’s degrees in sports and recreation management.
Having played youth soccer and high school baseball, he knew a lot of Solon kids growing up, and the connection continued in college when he worked with Solon’s Greg Morris as a student manager for the Hawkeye football team.
“Growing up, my uncle was a basketball manager for the Hawks in the 1990s,” Harder explained. “I always thought that sounded like the best opportunity, it was so cool.”
Harder pursued a position with the football team and was accepted in 2014. He spent five years with the program, the first three as a student manager and the last two as a football operations graduate assistant.
People always ask him about the role of the student manager.
“It’s just about everything you can think of behind the scenes,” he said, including setting up and tearing down practice, setting up drills, helping with equipment, administering team meals, cleaning the facility, assisting coaches and loading and unloading the equipment truck.
“It was a blast,” he said. “It was a lot of fun.”
The graduate assistant position, also one of the 12 student managers, was very similar, but dealt more with the operations side, responsible for summer camps and for coordinating road trips, he explained.
Harder also worked for UI Recreational Services during college, serving as a field supervisor and membership attendant at the Field House.
His mother has been employed with UI Recreational Services since the 1980s, and it is part of the reason he chose his career.
“I really enjoyed recreation and that job, getting to work with kids and people, setting up programs and events,” he noted.
But he’s also a sports enthusiast.
“I’m a big sports fan,” Harder continued. “I love sports and when you’re working in recreation you’re working with sports on a daily basis.”
There’s something about seeing people play the game they love, he said, learning and growing and developing their skills, both athletically and as a person.
Recreation can inspire people to be better, he noted. It’s something that can teach hard work and learning from losses. It’s also a great way to make friends.
“There are things that recreation events and sports teach that I feel you can’t get anywhere else,” he observed. “And I love seeing people learn and grow. I loved it when I was growing up.”
Harder broadened his experience while attending UI, working as an assistant freshman baseball coach at West High, and after graduating spent time as a North Liberty Parks and Recreation employee working with special programs for seniors and youth.
With the position in Solon, he saw the opportunity to take the next step in his career while still staying in the area he loved.
“It really was the perfect spot for me,” he said.
He knew people in the community, and knew it was tight-knit and passionate about sports and recreation.
“A great spot to come into because you know people are going to care about what you’re doing, they’re going to want to get involved,” he added.
City recreation is not just about sports, he suggested, it’s about activities for all ages and interests.
“What we do here as a community parks and rec. department is for the community members, it’s for the residents,” he explained. “Everything we do should be to improve the quality of life of Solon residents.”
Solon has a good foundation started with the community center and current programs, he said.
Among the first steps for Harder as director will be to spend more time with community members, eliciting their ideas and opinions.
If part of the goal is to establish programs to keep people in Solon, Harder said, he needs to know what is drawing families to Iowa City or Cedar Rapids for recreation.
Harder pledged to visit with business owners, hand out his contact information and attend events in order to get the word out.
“Get myself out there so they know I’m available, and they can come talk to me and reach out to me at any time,” he said.
In the future, maybe another community survey could further refine what residents like and what they’d like changed about programming, he added.
For now though, Harder will be working with what he has– a six-month lease for the Solon Community Center and a set of existing programs which have been up and running for over a year.
Youth leagues are popular, and pickleball has been successful Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Adult sand volleyball was a hit, and Harder’s hopeful the idea of a slo-pitch softball league can gain some traction.
The recreation department hosted laser tag for the first time late in 2019 and it was a success, so it will be returning Jan. 31 with an inflatable course in the Solon Community Center gymnasium at a cost of $20 per person.
Those are the goals: get the word out on the events and programs offered and raise the community’s awareness, and hopefully offer new programs and events for different interests.
“This is a great spot, so hopefully it stays around a while and we can get more people coming in, get more events and programs built up in order to stay here,” he said.
Harder has some ideas for new programs but really wants to hear what Solon residents are passionate about.
Along with trying to get slo-pitch softball up and running, he’d like to see adult basketball and volleyball leagues established.
There are some other tried and true ideas that have been successful in other communities as well– holiday parties, parent’s night out, and maybe some summer day trips to Adventureland or a Cedar Rapids Kernels game.
Ultimately, it’s up to the community to decide what it wants, he said.
If someone has an interest, Harder said he’ll research it and see if he can make it happen.
He is driven when it comes to sports and recreation, but is easy to talk to and
wants to see the Solon programs grow and develop with as many community members involved as possible.
“It’s all for them to help enrich their lives,” he noted.