Tracy Burnett

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Director, Chatham County Parks and Recreation
By hannah Lee | PHOTOgraphy BY Beth Mann


You might be surprised to learn that Tracy Burnett, the director of Chatham County Parks and Recreation, is somewhat unfamiliar with Leslie Knope, the famously tireless parks director on the former NBC sitcom, “Parks and Recreation.”

“I find myself bringing work home sometimes,” Tracy says. “So when somebody was talking about the show, and I hadn’t seen it before, I was thinking like, ‘Do I really want to go home and watch it again?’ I’ve already experienced it from 8 to maybe 5 or 5:30, six and seven days a week – because recreation never ends, you know?”

Indeed, more than half of Tracy’s life has been dedicated to organizing and leading Chatham’s parks and recreational activities.

When she stepped into her position as the director 27 years ago, Chatham County had only one park. Today, there are five. Under her leadership, the county opened Southwest District Park, Northeast District Park and The Park at Briar Chapel, renovated Northwest District Park and set aside 268 acres for future parks. She also led the expansion of 4.6 miles of the American Tobacco Trail in Chatham. Recently, she’s focused on the department’s new master plan, which hopes to add 85 miles of greenway and trails over 10 years. Public parks can take up to four years to design and build. The long process is the most difficult part of her job: waiting and keeping things moving, finding creative ways to leverage funds, managing design plans, hiring contractors and, finally, overseeing construction.

“The patience,” Tracy says taking a deep breath, “is big just because we work in county government.”

Tracy’s Chatham roots run deep. She played on Chatham Central High School’s 1986 state championship basketball team in addition to playing tennis and softball. She then attended High Point University on an athletic scholarship, and after graduation, moved closer to home, settling in Graham in UCLA – “Upper Chatham, Lower Alamance,” she jokes – and was hired as the Town of Pittsboro Parks and Recreation director. She moved to the county position within a year.

Her children, Calen, Shaylen and Jalen, are now in their 20s, but she still regularly attends youth rec events.

She says it is rewarding “to see the kids hit the ball for the first time, make their first catch, make their first basket,” and to “watch the last kid stick with it, finish the race and cross the finish line.”

After more than two decades cheering for Chatham kids, Tracy says she usually can’t go to Walmart without someone wanting to chat. Even when people don’t remember her name, they recognize her as the face cheering alongside parents.

“Everybody thinks my job is fun,” Tracy laughs. “There are some challenges in it along the way, and patience and resiliency that comes along with it, but that’s the enjoyment: Just to see [kids] at events, see them advance, see them have a good time. And not just the kids, but the seniors and the older adults,” Tracy adds. “They get big enjoyment out of watching their kids’ success.”




Read the original article from the April/May 2019 Issue:

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