What's Jim Vekasi been doing the past 20 years at Acadia National Park? The short answer is, a lot!
Let's see, during that period as chief of maintenance for the park Mr. Vekasi has managed to rehabilitate all major visitor facilities and the vast majority of the park’s infrastructure, including 119 miles of paved road, 62 parking lots, and 47 bridges. And, he has personally overseen more than $100 million in appropriated park improvements in addition to his regular duties.
By many measures, these ‘regular’ duties are extraordinary as well -- Chief Vekasi is responsible for overseeing a fleet of 150 vehicles and pieces of equipment, a 131-mile system of hiking trails, 23 employee housing structures, thousands of signs, government-owned concessions facilities, and the offices for five park divisions.
And then there's the relatively nearby (two hours away is relatively nearby in Maine terms) St. Croix International Historic Site, where he has been instrumental in transforming the site from essentially an unattended wayside to a fully functional park unit with an interpretive trail, parking area, ranger station, comfort station, maintenance building.
Among the chief's many accomplishments, and one of the most complex and most successful, has been his work in helping transform a former Navy base into Acadia’s Schoodic Education and Research Center. This portion of the park is a massive facility in its own right, containing 38 major buildings, 32 apartment units, a dining hall, barracks, a gym, and all of the furnishings that went with them. Under ten years of Chief Vekasi's expert guidance and project management, Acadia invested nearly $18 million to remove 16 excess buildings, build a state-of-the-art auditorium, and convert the bowling alley into a 71-bed bunkhouse.
Under the chief's guidance, contracts are under way at Schoodic to reconfigure the roads, convert three buildings to classrooms, and add the lighting, landscaping, and signs to convert the former base into an attractive and viable campus for science, education and other mission-related activity.
This major effort combined about 10 years of project work into 18 months, according to the Park Service, and will position the SERC to develop a wide range of science, education, and youth-oriented programs and activities serving Acadia and the National Park System as a whole.
Acadia is also using park fee revenues to convert the former officers club into the dining hall and lounge building for the SERC campus which will soon serve up to 200 people overnight. Acadia will be using private donations and other fee revenue to make the historic Rockefeller building into the campus reception and exhibit hall.
All of these projects have benefited immensely from Chief Vekasi's expert advice, leadership and management to get them in the pipeline for funding, obtain the necessary approvals, and to work though compliance, design and construction with staff and public input as needed.
Not surprisingly, Interior Department officials recently took note of what the chief has been up to the past two decades, and recently recognized his efforts with an "honor award," one of the highest awards the department hands out to staff. Chief Vekasi was in Philadelphia in mid-November to present a program on how to be a successful chief for the Northeast Regional Office’s training for new chiefs and superintendents when the award was presented.
The chief's workload and the process required to get approvals and funding for park projects have increased dramatically over the years and yet his positive attitude and expertise have resulted in numerous major improvements to facilities, infrastructure, and operations at Acadia National Park. Many of the park's 2.5 million annual visitors comment on how clean and well-maintained the park is and that is a direct result of the chief's leadership and talents.
Along the way, Chief Vekasi has made significant improvements in maintenance operations, park wide safety and environmental management, and energy conservation. He is a recognized national leader in maintenance operations and programming. A visitor to Acadia or Saint Croix would be hard pressed to stand anywhere in the parks and not see something improved by the chief.
"Jim was truly the person who managed dozens of projects at Acadia from the concept and planning stage all the way though internal approval processes and then the construction phase," said Acadia Superintendent Sheridan Steele. "He always coordinated with numerous other interests and was sensitive to protecting park resources as well as the visitor experience. The final products of his labor have improved Acadia National Park facilities and in the end have provided for greater visitor enjoyment."