The head of Baton Rouge’s recreation and parks system said Monday she will leave the agency by early 2019, ending a tenure that saw her praised for the expansion of parks and trails and cursed for closing some attractions and trying to move the city’s zoo.

After joining BREC in 2012, Superintendent Carolyn McKnight spent her energy improving community parks and developing trails that linked parks to neighborhoods. She upset patrons by moving to close a golf course and swimming pool in North Baton Rouge and attempting to relocate the zoo to South Baton Rouge.

A beleaguered McKnight said Monday during a Baton Rouge Press Club appearance that she is ready to retire to spend more time with her family in Texas. She downplayed the idea that recent political turmoil sparked her decision to walk away from BREC when her contract expires in late January next year.

McKnight said she would stay on to help with the transition to a new superintendent. She said she expects park commissioners to conduct a national search and that a new leader could be named by the end of the year.

“I want people to know that I cared about their health and I cared about how we take care of the people from the northern side of this parish to the southern side of this parish,” she said.

The National Recreation and Park Associated named McKnight a “national distinguished professional” in 2016. Modern recreation centers and amenities like splash pads proved popular with the public, which approved multiple tax renewals for BREC under McKnight’s tenure, but the superintendent was never able to escape political pressure from North Baton Rouge.

In 2015, McKnight announced plans to convert the Howell Park Golf Course into park space because it was performing poorly. Metro Council members disagreed, but after the 2016 floods the golf course closed anyway. A new fishing lake, a second playground, zip lines, basketball courts, pavilions, park benches and paved walking paths have taken its place.

Also in 2015, she advanced a plan to close the Gus Young swimming pool, shuttering what some local politicians called a historic site because so many children had learned to swim there.

This year, she sought to move the Baton Rouge Zoo from North Baton Rouge to Airline Highway Park near the Ascension Parish line. North Baton Rouge politicians seized on the argument that BREC would take away one of the area’s few remaining tourist attractions. Dissent reached new levels.

Mayors from Baton Rouge, Baker, Central and Zachary banded together in opposition. North Baton Rouge political leaders and residents said they wanted to keep the zoo and renovate it, while Santa Maria residents in south Baton Rouge complained that moving the zoo near them could make traffic and flooding worse. The BREC board of commissioners voted unanimously against moving the zoo.

Days later, the zoo lost its accreditation from Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which cited its antiquated exhibits. Commissioners held a news conference to say they were still supportive of McKnight, despite repeated calls from north Baton Rouge Metro Councilwoman Chauna Banks for the superintendent to resign. The Louisiana Legislature also requested an audit of the agency.

Banks celebrated the news of McKnight’s retirement Monday with a “thank you, Jesus!” on her Facebook page.

Downtown Development District Executive Director Davis Rhorer, a BREC commissioner, voted twice against McKnight’s plans to relocate the zoo. Rhorer said Monday that BREC has been lucky to have her.

“I have to just admire her fighting spirit,” Rhorer said. “She always wants, I think, what’s best for the kids, what’s best for the community. Even if it’s not politically popular.”

One of her legacies, he said, will be the addition of trails throughout the parish. BREC said Monday it had doubled the length of trails since McKnight took over. It also has received $3 million in federal money to build a 6-mile trail that will connect Southern University and LSU.

Rhorer said he expects the zoo and Greenwood Park to be at the forefront of discussions with candidates to replace McKnight. BREC officials are reviewing proposals from 10 design firms that have asked for the contracts to master plan improvements to Greenwood Park and the zoo. BREC previously estimated a $150 million price tag to rebuild the zoo and expand Greenwood Park.

The Baton Rouge Area Chamber thanked McKnight for her service. The chamber said green spaces, trails and other BREC amenities are important to attract new residents and businesses. It also said BREC’s success largely depends on the public’s support as well as “insulation from political influence its independent structure affords.”

Commission Chairman Lloyd Benson II described McKnight as a visionary. He said her leadership was vital for BREC to serve the community amid civil unrest in 2016 when a Baton Rouge police officer shot and killed Alton Sterling and floods inundated the parish.

McKnight said she was proudest of BREC’s work after the 2016 floods. She referenced the BREC mobile units at emergency shelters, emergency camps to keep children entertained while their parents dealt with flood recovery, debris pickup sites at BREC parks and more.

McKnight is one of the highest-paid public employees in the city-parish. Her compensation package exceeds $157,000 annually. The parks system collects some of the highest dedicated property taxes in the parish to help fund its $73.5 million budget.


Follow Andrea Gallo on Twitter, @aegallo.​