Nisswa parks and rec welcomes new face - Hill leads with experience

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One of several new faces at Nisswa City Hall is Parks and Recreation Director Matthew Hill, who took his post about three months ago.

Since starting the job, Hill moved his wife and two teenaged sons from Aitkin to Breezy Point and became a permanent lakes area resident.

"This is really where we want to be," he said. "We've been involved with this community for a long time because our kids both play hockey, so I've gotten to know a lot of people over the years."

Before moving up north, Hill wore several different hats in Aitkin, including city council member, business owner and nonprofit advocate.

Hill served two terms on the Aitkin City Council; and for 11 years, he owned Aitkin Furniture and Carpet, a store he bought from his parents. But a highly competitive furniture market caused Hill to close his doors in 2015.

"It's difficult to compete with a HOM Furniture or a Slumberland," he said. "It just got to be where too many Slumberland trucks were driving through my town."

Closing the store allowed Hill to open a new door when he became executive director of Brainerd's Northland Arboretum the same year.

"That's really what got me interested in parks and management and the outdoors," he said. "And then my involvement as a coach and manager and board member at (Northern Lakes Youth Hockey Association) really brought me to the athletic portion of the job here, promoting programs, getting activities for kids lined up."

Hill's interest in working directly with his community, though, started much earlier.

"I was raised in a very civic-minded family," Hill said. "My dad was the mayor; my parents ... were big in giving back to the community, and that's what prompted me to get involved educationally in a system that would benefit the community."

That educational involvement includes a degree in public administration from Minnesota State University-Mankato. Then after a few years selling medical record systems to hospitals in the Twin Cities following college, Hill moved back to his hometown of Aitkin to put his degree to use.

"As I owned the furniture store, I wasn't directly involved with public administration/city management," Hill said. "And that's why I started doing nonprofit work and helping other nonprofits - just to do my part and help my community."

The Aitkin Chamber of Commerce, Riverwood Healthcare Foundation and Aitkin County CARE are among the organizations Hill dedicated his time to as a way to give back to his community.

All of that previous work prepared him well for his new position in Nisswa.

"It was exactly what I expected," Hill said, explaining that his time on city council taught him about local politics and how to make programs successful, and his involvement with youth hockey prepped him for all the youth activities he now runs, which is the No. 1 priority in the summer.

Along with soccer, baseball, tennis and art camp for kids, the parks and rec department also offers safe driving courses for seniors and CPR classes.

"We try to offer something for everybody," he said.

The other part of Hill's job in Nisswa is to maintain the city's parks and other recreational areas. Right now, Nisswa Lake Park and the Gull Lake Trail are high on his priority list.

"We are at the last leg of the Gull Lake Trail to connect it to the Paul Bunyan Trail," Hill said. "Once that trail gets connected, then we can start working in partnership with the DNR to work on the facility that we're going to have over at the Nisswa Lake Park."

To help with future costs of the park project, bluegrass band Hans Blix and the Weapons Inspectors will play a benefit concert, sponsored by Friends of Nisswa Lake Park, from 3-5 p.m. Monday, July 3, at the Nisswa Pocket Park. Hill said anyone who wants learn more about the project or become a volunteer can visit nisswalakepark.com.

Seeing the community partnerships for the park and other projects, along with meeting many new faces, are what Hill has enjoyed about the Nisswa community so far.

"Being part of this community has been great ... lots of great people work here, so we're lucky for that," he said. "I've been introduced and met a lot of great people - parents specifically who are like-minded to me, who have kids - and they've all been very welcoming and very complementary to the programs we have here."

Hill and his wife plan to stay in the community for at least a little while.

"We've got five or six years to go before we're empty-nesters," Hill said. "Then we'll work on our five-year plan from there and see where it takes us. But we're very much interested in sticking around."